‘Famished’ at Portland Playhouse: What are you hungry for?

"Famished" eats by the spoonful./Courtesy Portland Playhouse

The characters in Portland playwright Eugenia Woods’ “Famished” are surrounded by food. That means their extended middle-class American family isn’t literally famished, in the sense of “famine-stricken,” but like just about all of us, they are deeply hungry for something. Mostly, that’s affection or connection or love, and somehow their brains, our brains, transform that hunger into the real thing.

In America, Land of Eating Disorders, we talk about this problem a lot, but we tend to focus on actual diets instead of the metaphorical or metaphysical ones, maybe because we think we can control what goes in our mouths (I have my doubts) and we’re pretty darn sure we can’t control the kind and quality and quantity of our relationships, because, you know, those involve “other people,” who are just as fluid, fractured and incomplete as we are.

Which is just to say that Woods hasn’t made an important discovery in “Famished,” receiving its world premiere from Portland Playhouse, she’s just talking about our problem in an interesting, occasionally amusing and generally insightful way. As one of the characters says, “I’m not hungry. I just need something.”

Director Megan Kate Ward had a lot of elements to juggle in “Famished,” because the play has a variety of elements, not just the ones connected to that extended family. Woods collected “material” for the play in interviews around the city during the past year or so, people talking about food and their relationship to it. That’s weird in itself, when you think about it. In America, we have a relationship with our food! And the results are piped into the play at various times, between scenes. For that matter, we in the audience are polled as we walk in: What are you most hungry for? And the results are read at the end of the play. The funniest one the day I attended had to do with rotisserie’d swamp rat.

And then there’s a wild card among the characters. She’s called Our Lady of Insatiable Desire (Jessica Wallenfels), and she observes the action, dances around it, occasionally intrudes directly and somehow silently explains the action. Yes, “Famished” is a magical realism play!

A huge dining room table dominates the middle of a stage (with seats on two sides) appropriate in this drama of food. The kitchen at one end becomes a taco cart at one point (actually at a very lively point.)

Jessica Wallenfels and Roxanne Stathos/Portland Playhouse

Let’s see: Richard (Damon Kupper), who seems to be a bit of a cold fish, fell for his wife Lane (Sharonlee McLean) in part because she was so… tiny. He liked her fragility and concavities, though when we meet up with them, she’s taken to binging on snack food late at night. Her daughter Diane (Jill Westerby) has a touch of anorexia, it seems, though the big lug who falls in love with her, Jack (Isaac Lamb), seems fairly well adjusted, food-wise, though after they break up, he develops an unusual fondness for the Mexican food of Olata (Wallenfels, playing two roles), who reminds him that desire is a sign of life.

The kids (Michael Cline, Roxanne Stathos) hate what their mother cooks — part of the family drama — but are really better balanced on the food score than anyone else. Hey, wait a few years!

So, yes, crimes of the heart are mixed with crimes of the palate. Woods’ script is funny at times, and the mythic “Lady” manages to keep things from descending into melodrama too deeply, maybe because Wallenfels inhabited her so completely and with such a great sense of wit and humor. And the voices from the real world help on that score, too. I wasn’t sure about this device at first, but pretty soon I appreciated those additional confessions, the way they deepened and broadened the stories on the stage.

The family dramas themselves are pretty predictable, no matter how amusing the script is, and I thought the cast struggled at times to find some originality in their particular characters, some roundness, some unpredictability, even though their performances were accomplished enough. As the kids, Cline and Stathos get the best of the lines, and they are engaging throughout — Cline (who played Ralphie in Center Stage’s “A Christmas Story”) has good comic timing and Stathos has great presence and a fabulous voice for the stage, an under-appreciated gift (or talent), I think.

I enjoyed Lamb as the lug from the working class family who doesn’t have much interest in food “issues,” though he has a few himself. Kupper had rather less to do as patriarch in the family, mostly just set himself up against (and occasionally with) Mclean, who dug deeply into her character and the character’s development. And Westerby gave Diane, who is really the central character, both daughter and mother, a flinty remoteness, emphasizing the connection between food and affection.

In general, I enjoyed the feeling of looseness in “Famished,” its episodes and interruptions, its magical interventions, its story lines looking for some resolution. “We were just one giant mouth swimming toward the sugar,” one of the characters says, at one point. And that made me laugh just because it worked on both the literal and metaphorical levels. Sweet.

Oh, and one more reason to see Famished? Free snacks!

“Famished” continues through Feb. 5 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave.

NOTES

This review appeared in a different version on OPB’s Arts & Life page.

“Famished” was part of the Fertile Ground festival.

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