by Rose Desena
The first thing I notice when I walk into the theater is the classic Joel Daavid set. A lovely family room complete with a stone fireplace. I felt welcome and comfortable. We are in the home of a Pacific Palisades family. Interesting symbol using the Palisades, it has a reputation of being the perfect little Mayberry like town. The Palisades is off Sunset Blvd. and is very much a village, with safe clean streets, manicured lawns, pristine homes and beautiful well to do families that insulate themselves from the ugly realities that go on elsewhere. Nevertheless, you can’t fool Bruce Norris (Writer) he knows what goes on behind closed doors, and he is only too pleased to give you a peek.
Norris is a master of family drama and personal conflict. His play Clybourne Park, won a Pulitzer, although it touched on the family and conflict, it had a different tone. In “The Pain and The Itch” he takes us through the struggles of class and the gaps between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, he touches on the pains of perfection that the educated baby-boom generation seems to be plagued with.
Clay (Eric Hunicutt) is a stay at home dad who loves his daughter, but harbor’s a lot of anger towards his brother, mom and his wife Kelly (Beverly Hynds). I can understand why; she is someone you would like to slap, at least I did. Condescending and righteous, she prances around the house criticizing everything her porno addicted husband does. I have to admit I fell right into Norris’s trap; with in the first 10 minutes I hated them. Of course that was an emotional rash judgment call and just what the author wants you to embrace.
It’s Thanksgiving, and the family gathers for a holiday dinner. I have always found the whole holiday thing fascinating. Here you have a family that clearly has no need for each other, but they get together for holidays. Being Italian-American, festive dinners were sacred ground; all family bickering was put aside and forgotten about as we sang along to Frank Sinatra or watched football games. We sat in the basement of my grandmother’s house with piles of food in front of us and pretended to like each other with class and dignity but mostly in fear of my grandmother’s back hand.
Norris is a little evil putting these damaged people in a room together. Not only do they seem to carry burdens of screwed-up childhoods but there is a little family secret that is going to explode wide open. A poorly handled situation settles into the house like a rodent and infects their lives with a sharp bite.
They invite a visitor to dinner, (Joe Holt) but he really is not a guest but a pawn in a manipulative situation set up by Kelly, who happens to be a lawyer. Which I am sure will not surprise you after five minutes of watching her character on stage. Cash (Trent Dawson) is Clay’s brother; he brings his young Russian wife to sweeten up the rat bites. Kalina (Beth Triffon) is one of the antagonists and really gets everything’s going. She is absolutely fabulous as she innocently prods and pokes at Kelly and fuels an already raging fire. Carol (April Adams) is the nagging, trouble-making grandma who somehow gets under everyone’s skin even the quiet guest who seems to be more of a prop then a character, although when he does speak he words cut through the family like a knife.
Kelly and Clay have a little girl, Kayla, (Ava Bianchi) and Norris uses her as the couple’s tool to torture each other. Although the only time we hear her voice is when she screeches and screams, she is struggling to be heard and secretly trying to stop what is going on around her. It’s Kayla who is the catalyst, through no fault of hers that destroys the life of an innocent victim. This is a hard look at a family in crisis due to a lack of communication and their emotionally fueled rage, they make mistakes, and they fail at the few things they so desperately want to do right, raise a happy stable child and be good people.
Regardless of how much we protect our children from ugliness and hardships of everyday life; it’s what’s done behind closed doors in the home that is so important to their health and well-being.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, you figured out the whole play. You’re wrong this is a little shocker, but it’s not that easy. Don’t assume anything, that’s what Norris wants from the audience. The more you assume the more dangerous the situation becomes.
There is a lot going on, and it’s the kind of play you can see a few times and walk away with something new each time. It’s full of intrigue with good twists that will make you laugh one minute and angry the next. I brought a guest with me, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing the play in detail. It was then I realized, Wow! That was good theater but one heck of a bad Thanksgiving dinner.