Contemporary family dramas don’t get much grittier, or for that matter much grimmer, than the Burbage Theatre Company’s (BTC) stark production of Melissa Ross’ “Thinner than Water”, playing through May 13th at BTC’s home in Pawtucket. Such plays are seldom done with sufficient empathy to make the characters become anything more that caricatures out of a sitcom gone awry. But that is not the case here. Far from it.
In BTC’s stellar production, director Allison Crews is tuned in to Ms. Ross’ ideas and knows exactly how she wants her gifted cast to deliver the playwright’s searing and poignant words. Sometimes the words seem as hard as the exterior of the three principal characters: Renne, Gary, and Cassie, played by Rae Mancini, Dillon Medina, and Alison Russo respectively. At other times, the dialogue is punctuated with stutters, repetition, or the loss of a train of thought that just drifts into space. Ms. Crews knows how to use silence to speak volumes.
The three “kids” in the play were fathered by an absentee Martin who presently lies dying in a local hospital. This “family” crisis is what brings the siblings together for a night to remember.
As one might suspect, Martin’s combination of an insatiable id and a sparse knowledge of family planning led not to one dysfunctional family but three, four if you include Gwen, Martin’s current main squeeze played affectingly by Clare Blackmer. Gwen shows up at the hospital where Martin is dying, but she can’t get into the ICU to see him because she’s not “family.” His kids can see him, but would prefer not to. This is a pretty typical set up for a contemporary dysfunctional family drama: the kids are forced together by the demise or pending demise of the family patriarch. Everybody takes off the gloves and the accusations and incriminations go flying like the Bard’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Everyone is forced to confront the truth, whatever that is.
But Ms. Ross does something different: she shows rather than tells what effects the ineffectual Martin had on his kids. By introducing four new characters: Renee’s husband, Mark, played by Jim O’Brien, Benjy, Gary’s co-worker, played by James Lucey, Angela, a strong woman, portrayed by Gabby McCauley, and Henry, Cassie’s on-again off-again boyfriend, played by Andrew Iacoveli.
Separate scenes with these characters display with dramatic realism just how damaged the kids really are, and offer a glimpse of what, if anything, they can do about it. The dialogue is sometimes brutal, less often restrained, heavy on the use of the vernacular, but always indicative of the internal struggles being fought by each of the characters. In every case, the acting is superb and a tribute to Crews’ adroit directorial hand.
BTC’s production of “Thinner than Water” is a tsunami of a play, bringing up more questions than it answers, but always awash with hope, hope of catching hold of a life raft or that one piece of debris in a sea of turmoil that just might save your life. Good stuff! See it.