The ties that bonds families regardless of the construction of a family unit (immediate, extended, blended, and created) are rarely rationale and this dynamic is something that goes back to the beginning of time.
In today’s world, marriage is an optional life choice for couples versus previous generations where it was expected that adults would marry, procreate children, grow old, and eventually die having completed their primary life’s function.
Even though those family structures may have included outside children born out of wedlock by a husband committing adultery, children and their mothers who were either ignored or treated like they didn’t exist, the primary family unit remained intact.
In Melissa Ross’s “Thinner than Water,” currently in production at Kitchen Dog Theater, you realize despite advancements we have made as a global society in a number of areas, this component of the human condition is still alive and well.
A former Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellow at The Juilliard School, Ross tackles this familiar terrain with tenacity and grit but script challenges related to secondary story lines takes this wonderful story on unnecessary detours throughout various points during the play. Despite that shortcoming, “Thinner than Water” is still worth seeing.
Directed by Christopher Carlos, co-Artistic Director at Kitchen Dog Theater, we find half-siblings Renee, Gary, and Cassie in deep and contentious family deliberations about what will be done about their father Martin, who up to this point has lived a very colorful life but is now in a hospital dying. In the end, they decide to divvy up the task of keeping watch with their father equally.
Even though there is an element of audience uncertainty related to what challenge was facing them, this opening scene was well played. Tina Parker as the older half-sibling Renee is complete FIRE in her role and anchors the entire cast in the storyline. As the eldest, she is the de facto mother figure to her siblings, a strict disciplinarian, with an obligation to keeping them straight until it impacts her own family life.
Clay Yocum as Gary wears his middle child status like a glove, playing the peacemaker who refuses to choose sides, just wanting their fractured family to get along. Likewise, Liza Marie Gonzalez is the consummate baby of the family, both precocious and petulant simultaneously, especially when the world does not revolve around her.
In the next couple of scenes is where this trains starts to go off track. We are introduced to Angela, a single mother played with damn near perfect comedic timing by the talented Kenneisha Thompson and Gary in an intense but funny interview she is conducting to find a suitable mentor/big brother for young son.
Likewise, in the following scene, we find Cassie with her on again, off again boyfriend Henry, played with grace by Jamal Gibran Sterling trying to determine if they are going to remain a couple. It’s obvious Cassie is searching for a father figure and Henry fits the bill. The challenge inherent in this scene and other scenes involving this couple was you didn’t get a sense they were actually a couple until there were direct confrontations.
Even though the story lines were entertaining at certain points, including a second branch of Gary’s life as an employee at a comic book store which featured the outstanding acting talent of Drew Wall, each of these scenes gave you a sense of being out of place and fighting to compete against the larger story of family dysfunction and sibling rivalry. Only when this train gets back on track with a focus on the primary conflict in the hospital waiting room and Renee’s living room does it reach its intended destination.
In the waiting room is where we first meet Gwen, Martin’s girlfriend who is a hysterical chatty Cathy type who gets on Renee’s last nerve with her non-stop verbiage that remains on idle and is quite random.
Played with gusto and vigor by the exceptionally talented Angela Wilson, Gwen comes to life in a way that creates stability to a family she has never met in the midst of her own grief, unable to see Martin since she isn’t his legal spouse.
Spitting out sentences with the velocity of a machine gun, “You haven’t been to Illinois? You know Chicago is in Illinois” to “Whew! I lost my train of thought!” or “Isn’t it odd that death comes in an envelope; they should have better office supplies,” Wilson is masterful in these funny, yet very human moments when sometimes the only thing you can do to prevent yourself from going insane is to talk incessantly.
However, it is in Renee’s home where the seeds of priorities, family bonds, and letting go are challenged and begin to take root. When her husband Mark, played by Jeremy Schwartz who delivers a noteworthy performance with searing intensity and skill, returns home from an out-of-state trip, the chasm dividing their home is on full display.
Despite their wayward way, Renee feel’s an obligation to her half-siblings, which disgusts Mark because her intervention affects their household and children. When he barks phrases at his wife like “My family members don’t invade our lives on a daily basis,” you feel the tension and connect with each character’s position.
In the end, decisions are made by all the siblings and just like life is a cyclical process, life for this family with all of its complexities comes full circle.
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“Thinner than Water” runs through Oct. 25, 2014, with Wednesday – Saturday performances at 8 pm and Sunday performances at 2 pm. Kitchen Dog Theater is located at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC), 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, TX 75204. For tickets, contact the Box Office at (214) 953-1055 or visit Kitchen Dog Theater on the web at: http://www.kitchendogtheater.org/single-tickets/.