Unexpected Tenderness
The New Jewish Theatre

Reviewed by Richard Green

Louis Balestra and John Kinney
Near the end of the powerful drama Unexpected Tenderness a distinguished older critic seated next to me said, "I'm going to have a heart attack before this play is over!" Now, that's good theatre.

In fact, my colleague still seemed very life-like at last viewing. But I would warn anyone with real concerns about domestic violence to think twice about seeing Israel Horovitz's bombshell of a play - and then, probably, advise them to see it anyway. And if you know anyone who's still wearing blinders amidst the issue, take them, too. Seeing Unexpected Tenderness must be rather like getting hit by an eighteen-wheel truck, and then another and another ...

Archie, the violently abusive husband on stage is played by the excellent Louis Balestra, who also plays Roddy, the grown-up son. As the older Roddy, he is able to narrate the story from a safe distance and create something of a safe distance for us too. (Young Roddy is played with disarming intelligence on stage by John Kinney.) Mr. Balestra's double-casting also adds to the suspense: Once we've been introduced to both of his characters, we suddenly aren't sure who he is next, sticking his head into the room a third time, or what level of danger he represents. Much later, after numerous spates of jealousy and terrorism, it's hard to distinguish between our feelings for each of his two separate characters. However, this symbolic merging of identities on stage also hints at what sometimes seems like the "inherited" nature of abusive personalities.

Set in the kitchen-sink reality of 1952 New England, Unexpected Tenderness is made more dramatically palatable by the tough-yet-tender actress Pamela Reckamp as Archie's wife and the target of his torture. A lesser actress would probably provoke an angry mob action against Mr. Balestra. Ms. Reckamp, dodging and countering in her flimsy bathrobe, masters an exceptional (and almost imperceptible) balancing of vulnerability and defiance. Meanwhile, Mr. Balestra's portrayal of the jealous, predatory Archie is nearly unbearable. And yet, you can't deny his nerve and commitment, as a highly skilled performer.

As the two children, young John Kinney and Sarah Wolff are very naturalistic and lovable. Director Brad Schwartz's most astonishing feat may be in successfully avoiding melodrama in this deeply troubled household, and pacing events to prevent the heart attack that one critic feared. Fine rhythms and multi-faceted characterizations add interest and even humor to the subject matter. As the paternal grandparents, Diana Nelinson and Richard Lewis are delightful - very funny and frightening by turns. Ms. Nelinson also captures the elusive art of self-delusion, as Archie's rationalizing mother. (The title of the piece, too, should give you a clue as to how such misery could be sustained.) Unexpected Tenderness also features the popular local actor Kevin Beyer as Archie's co-worker who gains a lot more dimensionality than we initially suspect.

I was recounting all this to a friend the day after the show and admitted to a feeling of shame for sitting passively through such a wrenching drama on stage. Then the phrase "audience complicity" popped out of my mouth (which is more of a compliment to my mouth than to my brain, for I hadn't thought about the phrase till just then). If you do an Internet search of the phrase, you'll find a ranking of about 115,000 references, of varying degrees of relevancy. A play like Unexpected Tenderness should be, though it's not presently, right up near the top of that list, especially with this quality of production.

The 100-minute show is admirably complex, with a director and cast that are fully up to the challenge. The New Jewish Theatre explains, in its promotional materials, that Jewish families are usually considered exempt from the problem of domestic violence. This probably also accounts for the horrifying layer of self-repression among the characters surrounding Archie. The scenes of abuse are fearsomely staged by Todd Gillenardo. The detailed set by Dunsi Dai heightens the clash of wills with its game-board ceiling and jutting entranceways. The prim, blue-collar costumes (which put a cheerful mask of domestic tranquility on the story) are by Todd Schaefer.

Unexpected Tenderness continues in St. Louis through March 6th, 2005. For more information call (314) 442-3283 or click the NJT link, newjewishtheatre.org

-- Richard T. Green

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