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BWW Review: Los Angeles Playwright Nathan Wellman Channels Arthur Miller in his World Premiere of MOM'S DEAD at Sacred Fools Theater Company


William Shakespeare once gave the often-quoted advice, "To thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man." There is a reason this quote from Hamlet still permeates society's consciousness 400 years later; it's great advice.

The root cause of all depression and unhappiness is falsity. As humans we feel sad when there is a disconnect between what is happening in our lives and what we think should be happening in our lives, or when we compare our current condition to the nostalgic, and often convenient, memories of yesterday. It was a topic Arthur Miller famously explored in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, where the American Dream was presented as the ultimate falsity, an unattainable goal that ruined the lives of the families that failed to achieve it. MOM'S DEAD explores these same themes.

The play premiered Friday night at Sacred Fools Theater Company's Black Box Theater at the company's new home on Santa Monica Boulevard - Hollywood Theatre Row. Los Angeles playwright and political journalist Nathan Wellman definitely channeled his inner-Miller when writing this smart and funny family drama.

(Meet the Thompson family, pictured here at a funeral.)

Scene one opens with the dysfunctional Thompson family attending Mom's funeral. The family members in attendance include: her husband and murderer, Arthur (played by Mark Costello); her pill-popping youngest daughter, Laura (played by Halle Charlton); her jobless/loser 2nd youngest son, John (played by Taylor Marr); her domineering and pants-wearing eldest daughter, Alice (played by Jessica Sherman); Alice's wimpy husband, Dave (played by Richard McDonald); and Alice and Dave's stoner adolescent child, Gary (played by Cameron Kasal). Notably absent from the funeral is her eldest child, Mike (played by Eric Giancoli), a three-piece suit wearing "Vice President of Marketing", and the only family member who appears to have made anything of himself. His absence from the funeral is quickly dismissed by his father, "He's a good boy. Probably just caught up."

It's in this funeral scene that the audience learns just how dysfunctional the Thompsons are. The family can't even mourn the death of Mom, who we learn was the selfless matriarch whose loving, caring, and sometimes annoying disposition acted as the glue that held the family together, without interrupting her funeral with petty fighting.

The play follows the family over three years, and a lot happens: Insults, fistfights, and even murder. What keeps this family together when they clearly hate each other so much? We learn that there's a force even more powerful than hatred; it's the idea of what "family" should be, and the memories of the family having better times. That metaphorical glue is what holds the Thompson family together, and it proves a very strong, yet toxic adhesive.

Like in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the scent of depression infiltrates every scene. Characters are most happy when they are reminiscing about the past. They all feel disconnected between their present situation and the situation they feel they should be in. There is an unattainable idea of what their "family" should be, and the reality of who their family really is. Yet, despite the dysfunction, the family bonds are strong. Even after they catch family members in the act of murdering one another, they keep their lips sealed to the authorities. "You can scream at family, you can abandon family, you can even destroy your family. But you never tell on family." That's the family motto, and they take it to their graves with them.

SacRed Fools' could not have put together a better 99-seat Equity cast. Cameron Kasal, who played the supporting role of Gary, a stoner high school student, was a standout. Kasal's comedic timing was superb, and he brought a very truthful and empathetic interpretation of his character with him.

Eric Giancoli was another standout of the night. His interpretation of Mike is reminiscent of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO. On the surface Mike seems successful, confident, powerful, and poised; he's the personification of the American Dream. He's the guy every man strives to be, and the person his father wishes the rest of his children were more like. But just after a few scenes the unstable psycho under the power suit is revealed. Giancoli does an excellent job truthfully playing this Jekyll and Hyde role.

(Eric Giancoli as Mike, channeling his inner Patrick Bateman.)

Mark Costello plays an excellent grumpy old man. Sure, his character, Arthur, swears a lot and yells misogynistic things like, "My goddamn toes are out dancing in the wind like a stripper's tits!" but you still emphasize with him. Every family's got someone like that, and Costello manages to be that person and make him loveable.

(Mark Costello as Arthur. Probably about to say something not very politically correct.)

Jessica Sherman does a phenomenal job playing a catty and suffocated housewife. While her character puts up a tough front, Sherman plays Alice with a vulnerability that is equal to her vindictiveness, which winds up making her somebody you really want to root for.

Richard McDonald plays the role of Alice's whipped husband, Dave. His character is the only non-blood relative in the story, and it's worth noting the way the Thompson family's actions transform him from Alice's flogged husband to the empowered, yet distrusting man he becomes at the end of the story. McDonald impressively plays a comedic outsider who can see the family through an entirely different lens than the rest of the characters.

Lastly, Halle Charlton and Taylor Marr masterfully portrayed Laura and John, the two youngest children. It's unclear exactly when Laura and John lost their innocence, but they are definitely damaged. Both actors did an outstanding job.

(Left to right: Jessica Sherman as Alice; Taylor Marr as John; Halle Charlton as Laura)

The entire production, directed by Alicia Conway Rock, was packaged together brilliantly. Rock, the actors, and the designers all made use of Sacred Fools' small and flexible black box space to the best of their abilities. The set design, by Sandy von Guttenstein, took a "less is more" approach, which was appropriate for the themes in the script. Acting blocks, a table, and a Christmas tree were the primary set pieces, in addition to a large wooden rectangle hanging from the ceiling upstage. It's not clear what that rectangle was supposed to be (I'm guessing either a TV set or picture frame), but aesthetically it was cool and worked well.

(What's that thing supposed to be? A TV set? A Picture frame?)

I highly recommend MOM'S DEAD to anybody who enjoys Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. I'd also recommend it to anyone who has experienced disconnect between how their family is and how they think their family should be, so in other words: I recommend this to just about anyone. Wellman's story offers a smart insight into why so many people aren't satisfied with their lives, and it's also just really funny and enjoyable.

Check it out:

When: November 11 - December 10, 2016
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
plus Thursdays, Dec. 1 & 8 @ 8pm

Tickets: $20, PURCHASE HERE

Where: Sacred Fools Theater Black Box Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038

Artwork Credit: Sacred Fools Theater Company

(Photo Credits: Ben Rock, Sacred Fools Director of Marketing)

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