It’s a cautionary issue play about the dangers of heroin use. No, wait, maybe it’s an angsty comedy about family dysfunction. Then again it could simply be a vehicle for theories of alt-pop psychology. Or maybe the whole thing is just an excuse to finally get those poems out in front of an audience.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is Houston poet, playwright and University of St. Thomas English professor Dr. Janet Lowery’s new play, A Heroine Free Summer.
By the time we get to the inevitable shooting-up scene replete with tense arm tying, needle flicking, injection and overdose, we’ve been subjected to so many erroneous portrayals of addiction, surpluses of foggy narrative threads and lectures disguised as dialogue that we’re about ready to ask for a little something to numb the pain.
The play, presented by Mildred's Umbrella, takes place in and just outside the screened porch of a shabby but not so chic yet still decent lake house (rendered in shades of blue, beige and tan by Claire A. “Jac” Jones). Even before one word is spoken, things aren’t right. Why is there a table lamp on the porch? And why is there a corded phone? Isn’t this an outdoor space? Sisters Ann (Patricia Duran) and Terri (Jennifer Decker) playfully bicker with each other as they sweep up the space. Sure, the broom makes sense, but who Swiffers the floor of a cottage porch?
Maybe the dialogue will make things better. Maybe that desperately trying to be deep poem about her dead alcoholic father’s effect on the family Ann read to us in monologue at the start isn’t an indication of things to come. Maybe when the other two sisters, Irene (Lyndsay Sweeney) and Kelly (Elizabeth Marshall Black), show up at the lake house, things will start to gain some steam.
Problem is, we have no idea why the adult siblings are up there in the first place. We hear lots of arguments about who gets to visit the cottage now that their mother has died. None of them seem to want to be there as a group, yet here they all miraculously are. Terri, the somewhat dimwitted eldest, appears to live there year-round. She’s been an addict and so have her previous boyfriends. Does she work? There some mention of a summer camp, we think. But really we don’t know. Recently divorced Ann, a college professor (despite saying “anyways” throughout the play), lives in Houston and is up visiting for no apparent reason. Ann too has been an addict, but claims that alternative therapy and a sense of spirituality have now saved her. Angry and resentful Irene has brought her 17-year-old son, Rory (Gabriel Regojo), up to stay for a while. She mentions other children, but who they are or where they’re staying is left blank. The posh one of the bunch, Kelly, lives close by with her husband, so she keeps driving up every day and going back home each night with her moody, rebellious and downright rude 18-year-old son, Kevin (Justin Gibbons).
Almost the entirety of the first act is taken up establishing the sisters’ relationships with each other through a mix of comedy and anguish. Who resents who, who bickers most with who. Who idolizes their mother and who sides with their dad. And who is keeping skeletons in their closets. Here Lowery executes textbook dramatic realism 101, namely an upper-middle-class white family discovers dark family secrets while throwing out the more than occasional punch line to offset the important seriousness of the story.
But the angst here is pushed so far that it unintentionally becomes the comedy itself. Not only was their father a drunk, he was a PTSD World War II soldier hero drunk who saved people from the Nazis. Not only does Ann still love her dad despite his disease, she believes that it’s because her siblings don’t, that their kids are junkies. Yup, that’s right. Both Rory and Kevin are secretly heroin addicts. Well, Rory was, but in what is the play’s most eye-rolling and frankly insulting turn, we learn that while Rory has shot up 20 or 30 times (along with trying every single other drug Lowery could think to name) and twice overdosed, he’s fine now that he’s three weeks sober. And just to be clear, that’s three weeks clean without any mention of professional help, withdrawal or relapses in the process. If only, says anyone ever in the entire world who has dealt with addiction.
“I don’t know what to say; this is all so troubling,” Ann says when Rory confesses to her, treating his addiction as if it's some kind of pesky skin rash. Rory’s response is actually the troubling part. Troubling in that Lowery has absolutely no ear for teenage communication. “If it helps, I’m serious about getting clean. I want to know why things are the way they are in the universe,” explains Rory as our inner groans threaten to burst outward in frustration.
Meanwhile, the other siblings flail around in absurd incompetence when it comes to the boy’s drug problems. Irene yells louder at Rory, and Kelly (who Kevin tells us is verbally abusive to him) continues to treat him like a baby, confusing us to no end as to what those allegations are about. It’s up to Ann to take control. While we’re grateful for someone behaving like a responsible adult, the result makes us wish a vow of silence were the path to a drug-free life.
Instead, Lowery, through Ann, rains down a hailstorm of anti-drug lectures on both boys, pushes something called family constellation therapy, gives a diatribe about survivor’s guilt and tosses out cliché lines such as “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” and “We are only as sick as the secrets we keep.”
I won’t tell you who it is in those final scenes with the needle in his or her arm. Not that you’ll care all that much when it happens. Or believe most of the family’s reaction. Or think that this experience in any way has informed you on the cycle of addiction. Or find Ann’s final poem, once again an overwrought homage to her dead father, moving in the slightest. Or, or, or……
If there is one bright spot in this production, it’s the cast, who, despite being mostly hamstrung by, well, everything, still manage to impress at moments.
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Most notable of the group is Lyndsay Sweeney’s angry, bitter and fairly one-dimensional Irene. Yes, she’s angry for who knows what reason, but somehow Sweeney plays it like there’s a wealth of justification under her belt. But it’s her performance as a belligerent drunk late in Act One that pulls her firmly ahead of the pack. Slurring just the right amount and expertly capturing the vacillation between inebriated bellicosity and amenable souse, Sweeney shows an agility that allows her to elevate beyond the material at hand.
Similarly, director Chesley Krohn has a moment when we see her work shine through the dud of a script. A fight scene is never an easy feat to pull off with complete believability. However, here Krohn does a spiffy job pitting sister against sister when a card game involving spoons goes wrong, resulting in an impressive utensil wrestling match.
And yet there can be little celebration of these accomplishments in the sum total of A Heroine Free Summer. Not when the heroine missing was obviously a dramaturge or perhaps even a best friend to inform Lowery that a drawing-board pit stop would be a good place to spend some time. Or maybe she should just listen to the Serenity Prayer so favored by Alcoholics Anonymous and recited by Ann several times during the show, which says, “God grant me the courage to change the things I can.”
A Heroine Free Summer runs through April 15, 2017, at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios. For tickets, visit mildredsumbrella.com or call 832-463-0409. $25-$15.