Tuesday, February 5, 2019

"Late Company"

Late Company
Jordan Tannahill

Baela Tinsley, Cheryl Smity, Desiree Tinsley,  Lawrence Radecker & Kenneth Heaton
The announced menu for the dinner party includes a main course of healing and reconciliation; but as the meal progresses, the dessert begins to look like a food fight full of accusations peppered by cradled secrets, unspoken fears, simmering doubts, and hidden agenda.  It is a year after one couple’s only teenage son has committed suicide by slitting his wrists in the tub.  They have now invited for dinner the parents of the boy who participated in harassing at school and on YouTube their gay son along with the admitted perpetrator himself.  While intentions up front appear genuine on all parts to clear the air and build a bridge toward healing, the recipes chosen for the evening do not turn out as planned.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents Canadian Jordan Tannahill’s 2013 Late Company  -- excruciatingly painful to witness but powerfully impacting to see.

What becomes clear early on is that there is no agreed-to, consensual outcome for this at-best awkward and uneasy gathering.  Try as all do in the initial introductions and stilted chitchat, what is going to happen when there is finally a call to “Let’s just start” appears to be unclear.  Hosting Michael even tries to release himself from owning much responsibility for what will happened as he says upfront, “Debora put a lot of thought into this ... I just did the appetizers.”  The visiting Dermots nervously comment about Debora’s hung artwork and ask about Michael’s work as a conservative politician, with a game of approach/avoidance ensuing of when, what, how (and maybe even why) in regard to the planned main course of conversation.

At the table meticulously, formally set for the evening, six places have been reserved – five for hosting Debora (Desiree Rogers) and Michael (Lawrence Radecker) and the late-arriving Dermot family of three and one more place-setting for Joel, the son for whom the hosts still mourn daily.  Though dead already a year, Joel is very much present during the entire evening to come, particularly when his parents unpack with detail a box full of his awards and mementos along with Debora’s five favorite photos of him.  Tamara (Cheryl Smith) and Bill (Kenneth Heaton) Dermot dutifully, even sympathetically smile, nod, and listen to the tearful presentations while occasionally glancing at each other with a look of question.  Their son Curtis (Baela Tinsley) looks straight ahead with face tense and eyes frozen somewhere in the far distance, moving only in occasional twitches that seem more involuntary than not.

Cheryl Smith, Desiree Rogers, Lawrence Radecker & Kenneth Heaton
As the conversation focuses increasingly on both Joel and on Curtis’ role in bullying Joel suffered at school (everything from frequent cat-calls to human excrement smeared on his locker), more and more revelations rise to the surface that often surprise more than one person at the table.  The Dermots learn that Joel’s parents had made several trips to the school’s administration about other kids’ cruel treatment of Joel and had been promised that all parents of the accused would be contacted -- something that had never occurred for them as Curtis’ parents.  Michael and Debora learn of questionable videos Joel had himself made (including one making a serious threat to other named students) and which had been widely viewed by students, teachers, and evidently many parents – but not by them (or so both at first say).  The skins of the onion begin to come off at a speed shocking to everyone present as new information or incident that someone (a parent, Curtis, a teacher/principal, Joel himself) knew but had not informed others who should have known.

Cheryl Smith & Desiree Rogers
Differences of opinion also become ever sharper and snappier -- between the two families and especially between spouses.  When Debora asserts her son was not that gay, husband Michael shoots back, “He was as gay as Mother’s Day.”  Pointed implications shoot across the table about the other couple’s family and parental practices.  Temporary bonds of empathy and understanding are formed across family lines – most noticeably by the mothers -- only to be severely, dramatically severed within a few minutes after a new revelation or accusation.

What becomes achingly clear is that the horrible outcome of a suicide, especially that of a child, is due to a complex set of variables.  While the bullying by peers may have been in this case the icing on the cake, many ingredients had been added by a host of people, institutions, and norms/practices to aid and abet.  As one parent suggests (of course only to be rejected flat-out by others), “it may take a village” to cause such a tragedy as the one that has occurred. 

The answers and the next steps most appropriate are not clear to these people; and thus most certainly, not to us.  That is partly due to the wandering conversations that ebb and flow and sometimes dead-end in Jordan Tannahill’s script but mostly due to the extremely complex issue presented.  But what is clear, avoiding the discussions, the questions, and the resulting self-examinations is most certainly not the answer.  As the play ultimately shows, all it takes is one person finally to emerge willing to tell her or his own truth in order to point in the direction of a possible path toward future and eventual reconciliation and maybe forgiveness.

To a person, the cast assembled under the masterful direction of Evren Odcikin is superb.  The emotional ranges displayed by each person are astoundingly wide -- with jarring expressions of anger, silent pauses of pent-up frustration, shocked looks of mounting fear, and sudden floods of flowing tears being examples that one time or another come from several, if not all.  The incredible intensity each person brings to the part portrayed is visceral proof of their individual commitments as actors to the important, difficult subject matter the play addresses. 

Teen suicides, bullying, homophobia, parent/child non-communication, the often-detrimental role of social media in the relationships among today’s teens – these are the topics that this cast is called upon to provide enough stimulation for us as audience to contemplate, raise questions, and hopefully, take action in our own lives and communities.  As an ensemble, hardly a better one could have been assembled than the one on the NCTC stage to tackle such difficult themes. 

Rating: 4 E

Late Company continues through February 24 in the Walker Theatre the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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