"We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend.” The ever-insightful University of Houston research professor/best seller/TED talk Phenom/Oprah bestie Brené Brown sure knows how to present our emotions to us in clear, digestible aha-moment packages. Her messages may be humble, but they’re always built on great depths of feeling that lead up to, and then guide us, towards how we deal with challenges in life – like grief.
Another Houstonian, playwright Esme Wu also tries to show us the dichotomous ways in which we deal with loss in her new play, The Visit. But unlike Brown, who reveals our humanness in simple, surprising and inestimable ways, Wu packages her discussion of grief with spoilers and single notes.
It’s been six months since Scott’s wife, Sharon, died. He’s taken down her photos, doesn’t talk to their young children about her and certainly isn’t trying to include Suze, his screw-up sister-in-law, in their lives. Kids don’t need reminders he feels. They need to move on.
But screw-up or not, Suze, is determined to be a presence in her sister’s kid’s lives. Even if she’s hours late showing up to her young niece’s birthday party with the wrong gift. And even if Scott has been ignoring her calls (the child of the '80s in me gives full points for the superb use of Toto’s song, "Africa," in the perfectly timed cell phone screening opening scenes).
Suze however, doesn’t just want to be there. She wants something for herself. Photos, cards, things that remind her of her sister. Mementos that keep Sharona alive in her heart. Most importantly, she wants a family heirloom necklace that her sister wore. Not to keep forever, but until her niece is old enough to take care of it properly. A necklace that Scott promised, but then suddenly doesn’t have for her.
The jewelry is the tension point; the competing views of how to handle grief the crux of the conflict. This would have been a fine launching point if Wu didn’t give away the entire story in the first few scenes of the play.
We know where the necklace is, we know that Suze is going to find it, we know Scott’s approach to grief is a time bomb and we see the breakdown and final ownership of the necklace coming a mile away.
Some of this obviousness comes because Wu shows it to us, some we know because while we hope the characters will behave in surprising or intriguing ways, they stick to exactly what we expect of them. It’s remarkable how draggy a 40-minute show can feel when all you can do is simply watch the inevitable play out.
Helping things along somewhat is a decently taut performance by Faith Fossett (known previously to me only as a terrific music director – so therefore nice to see a new side of her talent) as Suze. With half-shaved head, smudgy dark kohl eyeliner, clad in black, including a T-shirt with the graphic, “Chics with Axes” emblazoned on the front, Fossett certainly looks the part of an angry and not quite financially stable family member. But it’s her slow-burn energy that saves this character from being a total cliché. Suze is not explosive, she’s calculating, and Fossett is like a silent faucet gushing full pressure. We may not hear the rushing water….but we see it.
Alan Brincks as Scott has a harder time getting into the skin of his character. Much of this lies at Wu’s feet as she’s given us a character so vanilla and thinly drawn that we don’t know what to make of him. We know he doesn’t want to feel grief. We know he isn’t interested in politics. We know he thinks Gordon Ramsay is cool. And we know he’s an engineer pulling down six figures. The problem is that the writing doesn’t allow him to really be any of those people past the one line or so of dialogue that describes him as such. Scott is a nebulous creature, neither angst-ridden, nor in control. Not arrogant as his profession/position might make him, nor humble like someone who is above such classifications. Not particularity friendly or outright cold and condescending to the sister-in-law. Most importantly, not real to us, and therefore whatever emotion he feels as the play comes to a close, we observe with unfortunate indifference.
Director Sophia Watt also seems stumped by Wu’s cards on the table, thin-line characterization. Try as she might, with bold, lengthy narrative moments of clock-ticking silence, these otherwise dramatic hush scenes can’t save a story that doesn’t allow for intensity to explode from the quiet.
And yet, even with all these faults, it’s unfair to outrightly dismiss what Wu is attempting to accomplish. The Yoda approach of, “Do. Or do not. There is no try”, seems overly harsh when assessing a new work attempting to tackle a weighty with a capital W subject in the space of 40 minutes in front of an audience of only 18.
The Visit, is part of the Landing Theater Company New Works Initiative, that this year gave two Houston playwrights the opportunity to produce shows in a Heights-area Airbnb bungalow living room. Yes, the show needs some rethinking and tweaking, but credit where it’s due, this is a play with the bones to work beautifully in an intimate setting and one that could put the 40-minute play on the map in Houston.
Good plays, after all, are not about how much time our bums stay in the seats. Nobody in this day and age is complaining that they didn’t get their money’s worth unless the production is three hours long with at least one intermission. We want quality. We want impact. We want that wow factor that makes us glad we got off our asses, left our Netflix binge, brushed our hair, put on pants and drove across town.
So Wu is onto something.
The question is, can she take her idea, with the gravitas-worthy topic, the intriguing runtime, and deliver something worth raving about. The Visit is not that production. But I’ll be
The Visit continues through November 4 at 1520 Rutland. For information, visit landingtheatre.org. $25 and up. Prices are subject to change.
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