Is there anything worse than declaring a show the “I” word? You know the word – important. What a turn off. Well, Leah Nanako Winkler’s Two Mile Hollow, currently being staged by Rogue Productions, is important. Luckily, it’s also wickedly funny.
Eleven years after the death of Derek Donnelly – yes, film star Derek Donnelly – his family gathers at the titular Two Mile Hollow, their soon-to-be-sold summer home to stake claim over Derek’s possessions, resent each other, and reveal some long-held secrets. All while downing Prosecco (and scotch). Matriarch Blythe now heads the family, which consists of only daughter Mary, who is cracking under Blythe’s constant criticism and unrequited love; older brother Joshua, who despite his five degrees is basically a bum; and younger brother Christopher, who followed in his father’s footsteps and is now a successful actor.
Christopher brings with him his personal assistant (and lover) Charlotte, an aspiring writer who gets a ringside seat for affluent dysfunction. It’s not really a spoiler to say that after less than 24 hours with the Donnellys, Charlotte will be running for the hills.
If it’s not apparent, Two Mile Hollow follows in the rich tradition of (as Winkler and co. call them) “white people by the water” plays, with one key difference – none of the Donnellys are played by white actors. It’s an in-your-face power move, one theater needs more of if it’s ever going to confront its problem with diversity in storytelling. It is also important considering the dearth of roles available to actors of color in general. For the older, conservative white audiences it calls out, Two Mile Hollow may seem radical. For this critic, however, it’s amazing just how quickly the casting recedes into the background. Maybe because some people never question the humanity of people of color in the first place.
When people of color are limited to specific stock characters – whether it be the sassy black friend, the spicy Latina, the “Dragon Lady,” or the magical anyone-not-white – it means the range of humanity non-white people are allowed to exhibit is limited. In casting people of color in the roles of these privileged white characters, Two Mile Hollow does underscore the absurdity of the “privileged white people problems” of a whole canon of theater somehow being universal, but it does little more than finger point and make jokes. It itself does nothing to expand the range of humanity allowed to people of color. So, unsurprisingly, there’s still much work to be done.
Luckily, as the novelty of the casting falls back what’s left behind is a sight to behold, packed full of fun-to-catch references to other works (from Tennessee Williams, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Anton Chekhov, Nathaniel Hawthorne, David Foster Wallace, and more); hilariously nonsensical, faux-philosophical epigrams, sometimes long and delivered in perfect synchronicity; and some seemingly random kookiness thrown in to great effect. And it’s all brought to life by an amazing group of actors.
Director Lisa Villegas shows such skill in how she’s grounded these crazy characters while still allowing them to be just as ridiculous as they can be. It’s a balancing act to be appreciated.
Kaci M. Fannin’s Blythe is haughty, a woman both scornful and withholding. Fannin beautifully spins her web, as one character describes, for much of the show. Mai Le plays Blythe's long-suffering daughter Mary, who humorously escapes into a bird fantasy when things – namely her mother – become overwhelming. Le’s hysterical laugh, along with all manner of vocalizations that act as some kind of emotional release valve, are endlessly entertaining, and contribute to the best performance of the evening.
Abe Zapata is the effete, always drunk Joshua. Zapata’s Joshua is a self-described manic depressive, which leads to some skillful 180s. And Joshua, like the rest of his family, is prone to hissy fits, as well as falling to his knees and wailing out his loneliness.
Jovan Jackson’s Christopher is described by Charlotte as charming, shiny and powerful, and while Jackson’s performance certainly indicates that’s one way Christopher could be viewed, really we see someone oblivious who says things like “yuck mountain” and “awesome sauce.” Among the family, Christopher is the closest thing we have to a straight man, even if he takes a minute to beat up a garden.
Samantha Jaramillo’s Charlotte is a screenwriter and fourth-wall breaker. Jaramillo gets to be funny and awkward, while playing a character that is fleshed out with the most sincerity, even if it is heavy-handed. Jaramillo’s Charlotte is a woman on a mission herself, even if it does take a day spent with the Donnellys to spur her toward self-actualization.
The layout of Afsaneh Aayani’s set – consisting of kitchen, dining room and patio – offers good sightlines and impressive archways, and it implies the spaciousness and sophistication you would expect from a home like the Donnellys’. Several boxes stacked in an entry way hint at the family’s upcoming move and a chandelier hangs over the affair. The problem with the set is in the photos of Derek Donnelly that clutter the space over the main entryway (his presence literally looming over everything) and the film poster on the wall. One can’t help but to think of Eugene O'Neill, whose father was an actor (and whose own “endless weekend” life shares some similarities with the character of Joshua), and the Monte Cristo Cottage, which was his family’s summer home. Aayani’s set is not unlike the Monte Cristo Cottage, but messier, and with less subtlety.
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Krystal Uchem’s costumes, from the family’s pastel ensembles to some black leotards that make an unexpected appearance, fit the world Villegas has established. And of course, they wouldn’t be complete without Logan Keslar’s blonde wigs.
Antonio Lopez’s sound designs and John Morales’s lighting support the production well, if unremarkably. And both music director and composer Travis Kirk Coombs, who has a surprise up his sleeve for the show, and Heidi Hinkel’s fight choreography pay off.
Two Mile Hollow may best be summed up in one scene, in which Blythe holds court as Mary stands, half bent over with emotion; Christopher is in his own world appreciating a compliment; and Joshua carefully considers a knife while also eyeing his brother. While the production itself may not have been perfect – a few timing issues and line flubs were noticeable – I can assure you, these are some people you’ll definitely want to spend an evening with.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. February 4, 6, 7, 8; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and February 3 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. Through February 9. For more information, visit matchouston.org or rogueproductionshtx.com. $20 to $45.