Rachel Bonds’ new play, Curve of Departure, now in its world premiere run at South Coast Rep, deals with the intimate adjustments any family goes through when the trajectory of the individuals lurches off course in unexpected ways. There is nothing really new here. Robert Burns said it best, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Add to that Shakepeare’s, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
The play is set in a hotel room near the airport in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is evening and three generations of family members are gathering to attend a funeral. The exact relationship between the individuals is cloudy at first, and then is revealed bit by bit as the action proceeds. First we meet Linda (Kim Staunton), a middle-aged African American woman busy ironing a dress with the equipment any modern hotel room of a certain sort provides. A clue that the production is aiming for theatrical realism is revealed when the steam iron Linda uses has visible steam jetting forth. Lying on one of the room’s two double beds, Rudy (Allan Miller), an elderly, Jewish man in pajamas, is watching television, some sort of gruesome, wild life reality program. Over the course of the play, it becomes clear that Rudy, quick of wit and glib of tongue, is in the middle stages of senile dementia, which is accompanied by a failing digestive system that has him lurching to the bathroom again and again.
Linda’s son, Felix (Larry Powell), a personable, mixed-race young man, soon arrives with his boy friend, Jackson (Christian Barillas), a shy sort eager to please in a difficult situation. Why difficult? The deceased was Rudy’s son who walked out on his wife and married another woman. Linda, Rudy and Felix have very mixed emotions about being there, fueled by ancient wounds and resentments. Although the instigating incident of the absconding father is an unhealed wound, it had the effect of binding the three generations together in the bonds of love.
The wild card in the action is Jackson, Felix’s gay lover. He and Felix are thinking of the future in terms of permanence, but Jackson has issues that cloud that tantalizing sky. Coming from a rough, broken family background in Bakersfield, with no father to speak of and a mother who is not in the picture, Jackson is tenderhearted and devoted to the toddler niece he rescued from his sister and her abusive, violent man. It is an untenable situation. How do Felix and Rudy go forth? What can they reasonably do? This is one of the curves that can tweak a departure.
The cast is excellent giving performances of classic kitchen-sink realism. Kim Staunton as Linda, sandwiched between Rudy and Felix, strives for cheerfulness in the face of increasing problems. As Rudy, Allan Miller gives a performance as real and affecting as breath. His character is well aware of the mental and physical problems before him, yet retains a warm sense of humor and a radiant love for his daughter-in-law and his grandson. Larry Powell gives a nuanced performance as Felix with intricate moments that delineate his resentment towards a father who abandoned him, his love for Jackson, and his frustration at the burdens that Jackson is bringing into their lives. Christian Barillas as the outsider Jackson tiptoes carefully through the minefield of family emotions, with his future clouded by the competing loves of niece and boyfriend.
In this production, director Mike Donahue keeps the action brisk and the performances real. The scenic design of Lauren Helpern boasts a “kitchen sink” realism with a set that looks like any one of dozens of rooms I have stayed in. And the move from inside the room to outside is a cool example of technical expertise. Rachel Myers’ costume design matches the realism of the set. Scott Zielinski’s lighting design is transparent. Original music and sound design by Peter Bayne fits hand in glove with all the other technical elements.
Curve of Departure runs through October 14 on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.