Friday, March 27, 2015

"Present Tense"

Present Tense
Alan Olejniczak
At Last Productions and Playwrights Center of San Francisco

Over a 24-hour period, the world premiere Present Tense gives us slice-of-life glimpses into five family situations – all unrelated, but all highly similar thematically.  Each takes place real-time for fifteen or so minutes, with the ‘present tense’ of each highly shadowed by histories of turbulent relationships and events and foreshadowed by uncertain futures.  In each, the tension is high, made so by revelations and remembrances and by fears of what may or may not happen next. 

There is immediate familiarity and audience empathy as these stories unfold:  a son caring for his aging father with early Alzheimer’s, parents meeting with a teacher about a son who is not doing well in school, parents worried about a daughter’s rocky maybe abusive relationship with her husband, a mother advising her daughter on a break-up with her boyfriend, and a wayward brother suddenly reappearing at the doorstep seeking help.  We quickly begin making parallels to our own lives and become engulfed in the scene with little build-up or explanation needed.

Like in our own families, people not present play a big part in the current family issues presented.  As each conversation develops before us, important characters not seen emerge as core to the story.  Not getting to meet these important-to-the-situation folks (e.g., young son, divorced spouse, deceased loved ones, etc.) builds intrigue into what is the truth of what we are seeing.  Both those missing and those before us begin to take some blame for the current dilemmas.  In each situation, there is questioning and even new realization about possible, personal responsibility for the issue at hand.  But like in our real lives, these issues are not easily explained away or resolved.  Possible suggestions of resolution that do emerge soon fade away as tenuous at best as the scenes end.

From their own shadowed corners on stage, five actors watch each other take on the dozen, different family members of the five vignettes.  Cleverly and unobtrusively, director (and actor) Rik Lopes has members not in a present scene serve as prop masters, handing and taking back needed cups, coats, or whatever.  Scenes seamlessly move from one to the next as our time-sliced day progresses, each taking place in a setting highly recognizable to us all (the family dining table, a child’s elementary classroom, a table with a crossword puzzle).  But the familiar, even comfortable feel soon takes on a troubled look as family conflicts arise, and the half-lit cast members on the side remind us again that there are unseen family members who come in and out of these stories in very real ways.  Kudos to lighting designer Mike Riggs for the way he uses his skills to accentuate the themes emerging in this production.

As might be expected for a world premiere, the vignettes are not equally strong, either as written or presented.  Luckily, the five are sandwiched with two of the more powerful.  In the opening, Fennel Skellyman and Rik Lopes are excellent as a father and son having a pre-dawn discussion about the father’s increasing dementia and the effects of the son’s care-giving on both their lives.  Mr. Skellyman is particularly believable in his physical depicture of the father and in the way he is one moment very lucid and in the next clearly forgetful and out of reality’s reach.  The combined anguish and exasperation of the son portrayed by Mr. Lopes add up to a loving portrait that anyone with an aging parent can immediately and personally understand. 

The estranged-now-reunited brothers of the final vignette, Jack (Paul Rodrigues) and Danny (Rik Lopes) bring us moments that are both touching and terrifying.  In one minute we see a history of love and family as the brothers reminisce; in the next we see one clearly failed brother who is about to be turned once-again homeless by his successful sibling who is weighing making that decision as feels the piercing eyes of his near-by, pregnant wife. 

While moments of the other three vignettes sometimes do not seem quite as balanced and gripping as these two, all five overall work to convey their messages of the power of both past failings and future fears on present, family relationships.  The fact that these are all dilemmas with no evident solutions and that they are dilemmas that will continue to evolve with further issues for our five families is underscored by the ten-second last scene: a return to our first father-son story, one day later.  Time marches on.  Family issues remain constant and are to be tackled anew with each passing day.

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