“Who we are is simply who our parents are.”
Somewhat like Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous pronouncement in No Exit that “hell is other people,” that statement, whether true or not, is as distressing to contemplate as it is memorable. That the play in which the line is uttered — Celine Song’s Family, directed by Samantha Van Der Merwe and onstage through Nov. 6 at Shaking the Tree — seems to take its truth as a given is a big part of what makes the show so weirdly compelling, whether in moments that feel relatable and hilarious or those that feel bizarre and tilting uneasily toward the grotesque.
The description on the New Play Exchange website calls Family “a play about being born into a violent planet,” and the linkage of birth and violence through the structure of family makes that violence feel grimly inevitable and universal, even if all of the planet the play deals with is contained in a single spare and somewhat tatty living room.
That’s where our three characters — half siblings Alice, Linus and David — sit somberly as the audience enters, gathered in the house they’ve all always lived in, dressed in funereal dark following the death of their father. Matt Wiens’ subtle sound design introduces a tinkling music-box lullaby, then undercuts it with what might be an oscillator generating the eerie drone for a 1950s sci-fi soundtrack.
“When it’s all quiet like this, I start to hear sounds from our house,” one of the trio says, and as the play progresses it seems possible that the sounds could be from the old house itself, from the ghostly/ghastly residue of its past, and/or from the strange, seemingly uncontrollable impulses of the siblings themselves.
Oh, right: half-siblings. Though all share the same father, each, we learn, had a different mother, and the play moves along at first by having each of the three recalling these women, their, er, peculiarities and their deaths. A streak of the fantastical runs through the play from the start. Linus, played by Blake Stone alternating between slouching indifference and domineering anger, recalls his mother being more than eight feet tall, and he insists that when his father strangled her she didn’t die, she just went into space. Unnerving as the recollection and the denial are, the evocation of Jackie Gleason’s wife-beating threat from The Honeymooners, “to the moon, Alice!” adds a sort of comedic pixie dust to the moment.
There’s an Alice here, too, but it’s the middle child, played by Rebby Yuer Foster with a kind of dark, mysterious gravity that at first suggests she might be most capable of rising above the family legacy and later that she may be the main keeper of its awful equilibrium. Her mother, we’re told, was literally two-faced. Youngest sibling Linus, Kai Hynes as a hangdog teddy bear/whipping boy, after describing his mother as little, hairy, animalistic and determinedly submissive, recalls his father calling out what comes to seem like the family motto: “Freaks shall be kicked!”
The walls of the living room appear to be half worn away, but it feels as if no air gets into the place, only the stench of more toxic patriarchy and generational trauma. The trio moves from polite squabbles about minor details of family history into escalating roundelays of passive-aggressiveness, bullying, paranoia and incest. Linus, who claims to be a screenwriter, insists he’s trying to work but he mostly just repeats, “Interior. Living room. Night” as though stuck not just in his creative process but in the family’s endless, internecine present.
Weirdest of all, despite a few feints toward outright horror, the play somehow works as a comedy, however dark and experimental its stripes. There are bits of wry humor and even a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. But perhaps it’s telling that none of those stick in memory as much as all the psychologically disturbing stuff.
Or maybe that’s just my parents’ fault.