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There are eleven year olds who have never known anything other than this default state, and that is a troubling thought, one which leads to three unspoken questions at the heart of the Clubbed Thumb theater company’s latest production for Summerworks 2012, the troubling (and troubled) Luther. What happens when soldiers try to leave war behind and reintegrate into society, what happens when this attempt (almost inevitably) fails. . .and who’s to blame?
At first blush that seems like a lot to lay on what is billed as a “dark comedy,” but dark is an understatement for playwright Ethan Lipton’s deeply disturbing examination of a bizarre family and the events which threaten to tear it apart. Walter (Gibson Frazier) and Marjorie (Kelly Mares) are a seemingly ordinary couple, scraping by in a too-small and overpriced apartment. Walter works a vaguely unsatisfying office job, while Marjorie is an unsuccessful freelancer; the two bicker, make up, and generally find frustration and odd comfort in each other’s neuroses. But what really ties them together is their “son”: Luther (Bobby Moreno), a young war vet whom the two adopted after his return from six years of army service.
I put quotes around “son” advisedly, because it’s never entirely clear what exactly Luther is to either Walter and Marjorie or the larger society. Events in the play seem to emphasize how much the couple loves him, but they spend a good portion of their time talking around him. For the first five minutes of the play the two debate about whether to take him to an office party while he lies napping on the couch right under their noses. Society’s reaction is similarly erratic. One character expresses admiration for Luther’s service, calling him a hero, while another explains that depending on how things go Luther may have to be “put down”. . .a comment which elicits no reaction other than general sadness from Luther’s adopted parents, as if they’re hearing that a beloved pet may have to be humanely euthanized.
Lipton’s world is weird in other ways — like the use of sock puppets to represent some, but not all, of Walter’s co-workers and some, but not all, of the officials with whom Luther and his parents have to deal later in the play —but it never goes all the way into absurdity. Representing this kind of Edward Albee meets Avenue Q world is no easy task, but for the most part director Ken Rus Schmoll handles it nicely, letting the production’s odd mix of sitcom-esque hijinks, manners comedy and occasional shocking moments play out freely. His cast acquits itself admirably — particularly John Ellison Conlee as Morris, a bizarrely awkward personality right out of The Office, and the three leads of Frazier, Mares, and Moreno.
Not everything about the play works. The sock puppet seems too clever by half, a stab at satire that doesn’t come off since it’s so inconsistently applied. In fact, the play often seems caught in between, not sure if it wants to be Harold Pinter or Ricky Gervais, and the tonal inconsistencies this creates are often jarring. Marjorie can be irritating in the extreme (much of what happens in the play is her largely unacknowledged fault), and at times it’s difficult to see what Walter sees in her.
Most problematic, of course, is the parents’ relationship with their “son.” The production goes out of its way to make sure we see they love him, but gives us no reason as to why. Where does the bond come from? What are they really doing for him, other than loving him without context or explanation? What does he do for them, other than give them agita over the potential for another violent outbreak by a deeply traumatized young man who obviously belongs in a mental hospital?
All of these unresolved questions may point to a larger truth at the heart of Lipton’s dark vision, that war has consequences both on those who fight it and those to whom the fighters eventually return. Once past the tired platitudes of gratitude for service and expressions of support, the final question remains: what now? If the tense, erratic, violent world of Luther is any indication, the answer may be as murky as the circumstances which prompted the question in the first place.
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