BWW Review ~ Stray Cat Theatre Presents Leah Nanako Winkler's TWO MILE HOLLOW ~ Madcap Family Dysfunction With A Message
The Kilroys is a self-described Los Angeles-based "gang of playwrights and producers" whose mission, since 2014, has been to achieve gender balance in the American theater. Among their initiatives is The List, a selection, based on an industry survey, of top "un- and underproduced new plays by woman, trans, and non-binary playwrights." In 2017, Leah Nanako Winkler, a 34-year-young Kentucky-born Japanese-American playwright, added luster to her rising star when TWO MILE HOLLOW made The List.
The play purports to be a satire of a specific genre of American theatre wherein rich white folks convene in embattled angst over their brewing dysfunction. One of Winkler's aims is to color the lens through which one might view and mock the indulgences and affectations of the so-called privileged class by casting People of Color as the otherwise Caucasian characters. However, the playwright's agenda extends far beyond lensing. In service to the Kilroys mission, there's a higher-level of intentionality: to game-change the genre that consumes the majority of American drama while the national demographic is radically changing and to open the stage door to new voices.
Winkler's venue of choice is the precious beachfront home of the Donnelly clan, where a diverse and quirky quartet of family members gather to divvy up what remains of their patriarch's estate.
The playwright has set the stage for an imbroglio that has them fretting and quarreling over the distribution of belongings and the assignment of loyalties.
Stray Cat Theatre has now taken up Winkler's gauntlet and assumed the challenge of producing this madcap excursion into family absurdity and dysfunction. Director Louis Farber has given his cast the necessary latitude to perform their antics with manic abandon. The result is a kind of controlled chaos imbued with moments of farce and sensitivity, clever allusions to literature, and homages to gender solidarity. (Admittedly, the references embedded in Winkler's writing may fly over the heads of some audience members, beckoning only, perhaps, for a supplemental guide to the program that clues us in on the esoterica. It's easy to confess to my own confusion at times as to what was going on.)
Erin Kong, a collegian who deservedly has graduated from stints with ASU Lyric Opera to SCT's main stage, delivers a killer performance as daughter Mary, whose moments of meditation take her to birdland. From the moment the play opens, with her body heaving and undulating in some sublime communion with seagulls, Kong is the show's queen of comedy. Then, there are the conflicted exchanges with her widowed and self-indulgent mother Blythe (Dolores Mendoza) that are hilarious. There's caws enough (literally!) for belly laughs.
Over-the-top performances are not limited to Kong and Mendoza. Vinny Chavez and Kane Black rack up their share of laughs as stepsons, different as day from night, Christopher the film star and Joshua the multi-MFA flop with a knack for contorted nouns.
It is in the fifth role of this play that its essential message is delivered. Christopher has brought his assistant, Charlotte (Samantha Hanna) to the gathering only to have Joshua fall for her. The boy/girl give and take may be funny enough. What is more dramatic is Charlotte's evolving awareness of the need to break away from the conventions of madness represented by the Donnelly's. In a way, freedom, for her and our culture, is just another word for nothing left to lose and lots to gain through diversity.
So, kudos to Ron May and Stray Cat Theatre for introducing a play that is far more than a comedy and that deserves extended reflection on its social message.
TWO MILE HOLLOW runs through February 2nd in Tempe Center for the Arts' Studio Theatre.
Photo credit to Amanda Keegan
Tempe Center for the Arts ~ https://www.tempecenterforthearts.com ~ 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ ~ Box Office/Ticket Sales: 480-350-2822