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The Parker Family Circus
by Adrienne Onofri
When you hear "dysfunctional Southern family," you go to the theater expecting to see rednecks, holy rollers, assorted eccentrics and probably a healthy dose of sexual repression. But playwright Jan Buttram took the road less traveled with her comedy-drama The Parker Family Circus, which Abingdon Theatre Company workshopped last year and now has opened for a main stage production.
Buttram has populated the Parker household with real people, not caricatures, and her setting of Plano, Texas, serves not as a punch line--as many Southern towns do--but as an emblem of upward mobility and the issues it raises. Instead of relying on stereotypes for an easy laugh, the humor in The Parker Family Circus--like the humor in our everyday lives--comes from the silly or bizarre things that people sometimes do and say. Even more memorable are the play's poignant moments, which work because the familial conflicts are realistic, the characters solidly developed and the emotions genuine, not contrived.
The excellent cast is headed by Rita Gardner, who originated the role of The Girl in The Fantasticks decades ago but here is playing the grandmother. Mamaw is recently widowed, with one son in jail and the other too dependent on her for help raising his mentally challenged son, Tommy, who at 20 is still a senior in high school. Tommy had been extremely close to Papaw and now is lavishing his affection on his grandmother, sometimes inappropriately. He's a huge embarrassment to his overachieving 16-year-old sister, Polly, and her scheming best friend, Vesta, who clearly prefers the Parker family circus to her own home of ever-changing stepfathers. Tommy and Polly's parents, Lottie and Don, are too wrapped up in their careers, not to mention infidelities, to give their children the attention they need. But all that has to change now that Tommy has gotten curious about sex and Mamaw wants more time to herself.
The first act is rather lighthearted, setting up the various conflicts that will be dealt with after intermission. And even as it shows us why this household has been called a circus--Polly and Tommy chase each other around the house, screaming and slamming doors, over an incident at school; Vesta, wearing black leather, fishnet stockings and multiple piercings, plops herself on the sofa to munch potato chips and listen to her Walkman while the siblings fight; everybody's cell phone rings too much--it reveals its characters to be more than one-dimensional, and sympathetic despite their flaws. Contrary to what her short skirt and flirtatiousness suggest, Polly takes school seriously; Tommy strives for independence while he recognizes his limitations; Vesta, in spite of her rebellious attire, takes an interest in Mamaw's memories of her youth.
The second act delivers a few powerful, and unexpected for a "circus", emotional exchanges. There's a lovely scene between father and son, as Don struggles to address his son's burgeoning sexuality. The climactic scene where Tommy explodes in confusion and despair is gut-wrenching. Lottie and Don resolve their marital friction in surprisingly tender fashion. My only complaint about the second act is the sad state in which it leaves Mamaw. I was hoping for a more optimistic ending for these people I'd quickly grown to care about!
Gardner, petite as she is, provides a sturdy anchor for her younger costars. She sensitively portrays a woman more complex than the tag "devoted grandmother" would suggest: modest but not prudish, harboring desires and disappointment that her family doesn't understand. Bryan Schany has the always-perilous task of depicting mental deficiency--although Tommy is "slow" rather than retarded--and he refrains from the exaggerated mannerisms often associated with such a role. In addition, Tommy's breakdown indicates this handsome young actor has emotional chops as well as skill depicting a character's quirks.
Lori Gardner and Debbie Jaffe, the college graduates who play Polly and Vesta, are thoroughly convincing as teenagers and a hoot to watch. Carole Monferdini and Michael Pemberton also show their range, she as the alternately brittle and forlorn Lottie; he the stage embodiment of "teddy bear" a burly guy who can extend affection to his wife and children.
Director Taylor Brooks' fine effort is aided by both his cast and a solid production team. James F. Wolk's set is attractive and homey, decorated like a real grandma's living room (with shelves of family photos and TV Guide and Reader's Digest scattered about), with the porch and kitchen visible from certain angles. The Parker Family Circus is the nicest kind of theatrical surprise--substantive when you might expect only zany antics, and a compassionate, engaging portrait of the type of family that many contemporary playwrights treat as hopeless.
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