Walking into the auditorium, all eyes immediately notice the scores of multi-sized, tied cardboard boxes that litter the entire two-level, modest home before us. We then notice a front porch with a rowboat docked in what appears to be the dry road in front. Mystery? Secrets? Revelations? What else could be in store for us, given these visual cues?
The family tree of this play is one whose roots and limbs are not as obvious as they first appear. A knock on the door soon brings two adult siblings – one black and one white -- face-to-face for the first time. The ensuing uneasiness and confrontations initially lead us as audience to think we are seeing a play that explores racial stereotypes and relations in America. However, a few taut, precisely directed scenes later, we realize that this play goes much deeper, taking us past alleys and byways of lives that are intertwined in ways that only those stacks of boxes know. Memory becomes a core issue of the play; deciding what memories of family and self to reveal and what ones to leave stored in some anonymous box becomes crucial for each of the people we meet.
Susi Damilano and Carl Limbly bring tremendous emotional depth and character credibility to the half-siblings Didi and Carl. With a delicious Louisiana drawl, Didi persists like a bulldog as she literally invades this Chicago household of Carl and his mostly locked-away, upstairs mother in order to discover more about her recently deceased father’s life. Carl, on the other hand, is very reluctant to engage too deeply with this pushy, white woman and seemingly only wants to protect and care for his Alzheimer-suffering mother. (Or is he trying to protect himself for some reason?). As the aging mother Mrs. Price, Cathleen Riddley hauntingly presents us with a ghost of a woman tormented with twisted memories. In her sometimes delirious, sometimes sane state, we become transfixed with her rants, songs, and pleas to an unknown ‘Ray.’ We as audience begin to see pieces of a puzzle that only come together fully with the help of Carl’s 20-something daughter, JJ, played assertively and lovingly by Tristan Cunningham. Who is family and who is not? Who knows and who hides? Are memories blocked and gone forever, or are they just waiting to be relived? We as audience and they as actors ride a roller coaster of emotions through more and more discoveries toward a moving, even surprising resolution.
What was striking in leaving the auditorium is that a large portion of the audience did not choose immediately to head out the door. Yes, there was a happy hour at the beautiful lobby bar; but clearly people also just needed to talk, to hug actors, and to say ‘thank you.’ Something happens during this play at a visceral level as we each think about what does family mean for us. We each begin to wonder what do we really know and what do we try too hard to ignore or even forget. It is difficult to sit through such a play as Tree without beginning to open some of our own boxes that have stayed stacked and sealed way too long in some corner of our past. Tree truly digs its roots into our own minds and lives.
Rating: 5 E's