Raising children is scary business. Good parents fear nothing more than their kids somehow getting hurt. But Talaya Delaney's Somebody's Sons, premiering now at Main Street Theater, raises an unsettling question -- one that few parents consider as they watch their beautiful babies grow. In this shaky and disturbing new script, Delaney imagines what might happen to parents whose children become the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims. She suggests these parents suffer profound psychic struggles as they attempt to deal with what the fruit of their loins has wrought upon the world.
Kirk Markley's richly textured set is the first indication that all is not right in the home of the seemingly doting mother at the center of Delaney's story, a woman who calls herself Dolly Madison (Rebecca Greene Udden). The walls are literally coming down. The upstage wall is split down the center by an enormous cartoonlike crack zigzagging from ceiling to floor. The furniture is all cattywompus, too: The couch is held up by brick, and the chairs at the kitchen table have been taken apart and put back together all wrong. A strange, hellish red light is coming up through the floorboards. Even the fireplace mantel is melting on one side. In this surreal world, a lamp clings to the downward-sloping shelf.
The bizarre home is an obvious (perhaps too obvious) metaphor for Dolly's internal life. All is not well in this gloomy world, though when Dolly waltzes in with a big bag of groceries, she certainly seems in good spirits. She stops in the living room to beam at her grown "sons" Morris (Chris Tennison) and Stuart (Robert de los Reyes) and to declare that she's going to make a cake for Stuart. It's his birthday!
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 713-524-6706
Through February 27, $20-$30.
But when she asks "Stuart" whether he likes chocolate, a dark cloud passes over her face. Of course he likes chocolate -- he's her son and she knows what his favorite is. In this way, the playwright drops hints that something is very wrong here. And soon enough, we realize that Morris and Stuart are just paid performers acting like the children Dolly wishes she'd raised.
When Dolly's husband, Stanley (Fritz Dickmann), arrives, he makes it clear that this little charade has been acted out every year. He and his wife hire two men to play their sons for one week so that Dolly can live out her fantasy of having raised two good boys. We learn that the real Morris and Stuart have been anything but good.
Of course, the men Stanley has found to play his children aren't any better than the originals. They too are lost souls with some bad history to hide. But over the course of the play, Dolly's surreal fantasy love becomes something that the two faux sons can cling to. In one another, both Dolly and her "sons" begin to see a real chance to start over and reinvent themselves as they wish they were.
Most of the characters talk about forgiveness; it's what they all want. But this is a hard lot to forgive. And though Delaney has plotted out her tale so it arrives at a tidy and even surprising ending, at many points throughout the narrative is too hard to buy.
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It's hard to understand why Stanley supports his wife's desire to reinvent her sons when he so clearly hates the whole idea. And though Dickmann's creepy Stanley is the most fully realized character on the stage, the credit here goes to the actor's nuanced performance rather than Delaney's strange story and often clunky dialogue.
Oddly stiff, the dialogue is full of hackneyed lines. Stuart claims to have "the world by the tail." Characters ask each other to "think about forgiveness" in vague and darkly omniscient tones. And as directed by Ilich Guardiola, the creaking lines become especially obvious in the mouths of the less experienced members of the cast, especially Tennison's Morris. Tennison has the unenviable task of bringing to life a man who is a monster in his soul. And he makes sure the audience knows Morris is diabolical by telegraphing his character's depravity with exaggerated sidelong glances and angry soap-opera brows.
Udden does better with Dolly's madness. She even manages to make Dolly's weird speeches to a statue of the Virgin Mary real enough to be disturbing rather than ridiculous. Any less of an actor could not have pulled this off.
The clumsy moments running throughout Somebody's Sons might be fixed in rewrites. Main Street's production is a world premiere, after all. And for all its creaking and cracking, the play casts a long shadow. Its central idea -- that a child might turn out badly no matter how much love he's given -- may follow you into the night. It's enough to keep any parent awake long after the theater has closed.