BWW Review: Poignant & Powerful THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE Grips the Milwaukee Repertory Theater
"It wasn't supposed to be like this. I thought they'd be like us. But better than us. Better versions of us."
At the onset of this family drama, we're greeted by a garden bathed in twilight - three finely-pruned rose bushes, a meticulous hedge, suspended origami flowers, and one towering tree strung with lights. The scene is dreamlike, reflecting a script that Scenic Designer Scott Davis calls "fluid, emotional, and poetic." A fine choice of words, though there are a dozen more I'd add to his list.
This Australian play by Andrew Bovell, now making its American premiere under the direction of Mark Clements at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, is indeed poetic - in its verbiage, the way it flows in and out of monologues, and the way choreography lends surreal moments. But for all the dreaminess of its staging, this is a story that steadily descends into the kinds of nightmares, confusion, and heartache faced by a family whose dynamics might be found in any household.
While some of the drama (infidelity, identity crisis, corporate crimes) feels a bit heavy-handed when it all falls under one roof, it makes for a show that resonates with every individual in one way or another. If you don't relate to the extremes on display, perhaps the more ubiquitous themes will ring true - like the expectations we have for our children, what love looks like after 30 years of marriage, the mess of emotions involved when we grow up and leave home, and the relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.
In short, Things I Know To Be True follows a year in the life of the Price Family. The play's parents, Bob and Fran, and their four grown children face a myriad of challenges and truths in the span of these four seasons, and that makes for an intense and keenly moving night of theater. It's a searing look at the ebb and flow of family ties and a testament to the idea that, through painful confessions and deeply-felt disappointments, family remains an unbreakable bond.
Bovell's turbulent, poignant script - dotted with just enough laugh-aloud humor and lightness - is brilliantly served by the cast assembled by Clements and the Milwaukee Rep. Highest praise to the extraordinary Jordan Baker as Fran, whose character is smartly nuanced. It takes real strokes of genius to convey this frank, chirping, shocking, self-sacrificing, sympathetic, and seemingly all-knowing mother figure, and Baker leaves you breathless. Fran's husband Bob finds perfection in Bill Geisslinger, who endears as the dad who calls Uber "Yuber" and can't for the life of him get the hang of the new Keurig. Feels familiar. Geisslinger moves to tears in moments both fervid and tender. Together, these two make an unforgettable duo.
The four children, played by Aubyn Heglie, Kelley Faulkner, Zach Fifer, and Kevin Kantor, each turn out stunning performances - especially Heglie and Kantor. As youngest daughter Rosie, Heglie anchors the play with captivating monologues and a crisis coping mechanism wherein she lists all of the things she knows to be true. As for Kantor, let's maintain some mystery and just say: if you have a heart, it's going through the wringer.
To be honest, I wasn't prepared for the ways in which Things I Know To Be True would draw me in and affect my musings for days to come. There's a lot to unpack in this script, and depending what baggage you're personally carrying, odds are Bovell's play will wreak havoc on some of it. Kudos to the Milwaukee Rep for staging a show that doesn't run from life's uneasiness, but rather sits in grey areas for a while and forces audiences to sit there, too. No shiny ribbon to wrap it up. No sigh-inducing final moments where the mess is tidied and the moral made clear. It may be a lot to handle on a Friday night, but it's beautiful and well worth the emotional effort. Just remember to pack some tissues.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow