Familial Landmines Unearthed in The Landing Theatre's Uncharted

Natalie Lerner and Paige Thomas in The Landing Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Brendan Bourque-Sheil’s Uncharted.
Natalie Lerner and Paige Thomas in The Landing Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Brendan Bourque-Sheil’s Uncharted. Photo by Sydnee Davis
Imagine the most fraught conversation you’ve ever been privy to. One that you were not directly involved in. Maybe you were in the room when someone else received bad news. Maybe it was at a dinner party, as a couple – both your friends – passive aggressively argued back and forth. Or, for the lucky few, maybe it was that time sophomore year when you innocently sat in the library working on a U.S. history project and two of your classmates decided to give you – and only you – a front-row seat to soap-opera levels of teen angst.

It’s uncomfortable, yet undeniably compelling, just like the world premiere of Brendan Bourque-Sheil’s Uncharted, a microplay commissioned through Landing Theatre’s Micro Theatre Project and a result of their Landing Local: New Works Initiatives.

In Uncharted, Alyssa is a war vet who works with soldiers transitioning back into civilian life and swigs hot sauce like it’s hard liquor. Liv is the soon-to-be-lawyer daughter of a two-mom family with a brother she says is taking a gap year from grad school to follow around a Phish cover band. What do they have in common? Their father who, by day, dealt in industrial copy machines but, by night, was a historical re-enactor. And, apparently unknown to Alyssa, found time in between to donate sperm, resulting in her newly met half-sister, Liv.

Alyssa’s not exactly her dad’s biggest fan, but has agreed to meet with Liv to talk about their family’s medical history. Liv has flown to Houston all the way from California and, though she claims she’s not looking for “a missing piece” and that she’s not on some kind of “soul search,” it soon becomes clear that she is, in fact, looking for answers. But the real question is, are either Alyssa or Liv ready for them?

Uncharted marks a return to Pax Community, the Heights-located, multi-use Airbnb where Bourque-Sheil’s Between Two Caves premiered back in October. The play’s location – a real living room, with all but three audience members sitting in an adjacent room, a pair of open French doors between framing the action – makes Uncharted, in a sense, equivalent to a “bottle episode” in TV. But despite the limitations that term hints at – no budget, few actors, etc. – Uncharted is anything but limited.

Bourque-Sheil hints at, touches on, and explores a world of emotion, confined and constrained to one location. One conversation. One hour. It’s raw, but real, building in intensity in a believable way. Director Bree Bridger has staged the action well, and the actors can be heard and the story followed even when the action may be blocked from sight. Bridger has a strong grasp of tone and character, important because Bourque-Sheil’s script is a bit more character study than anything else. Luckily the actors are more than ready to carry the weight of that study.

So what can you learn in approximately an hour through one conversation with a stranger who happens to be related? Turns out, a heck of a lot. Natalie Lerner is all hard shell as Alyssa. She’s at a loss for how to deal with the appearance of her new half-sister, and a little resistant and defensive. She struggles, but she’s also perceptive, and shrewd. (And, not for nothing, Lerner throws in a couple of good voices, too.) Lerner’s Alyssa contrasts well with Paige Thomas, whose Liv appears quite restrained, high-strung and uptight even. That is, until she begins to grow desperate and fray at the seams. The rapport between the two is strong and really takes off after Alyssa … needs a moment (no spoilers here), as the play picks up momentum and intensity.

Lerner and Thomas play the differences between their characters well through their physicality. Lerner owns the space she is in, sometimes with feet planted, sitting on the edge of the couch and leaning forward, and sometimes laying back, her hands behind her head. Thomas’s Liv is composed at the start, sitting back in her chair, straight and tense, until later, when her emotions break through almost uncontrollably. Krystal Marie Uchem’s costumes – from Al’s espadrilles to Liv’s flats, or Al’s shirt and blue jeans to Liv’s black slacks and cardigan – further speak to the character differences.

One of the play’s strong suits is its fly-on-the-wall feel, but that natural realism appeared to slip into sloppiness at points as some lines were stumbled over and some words lost. And while Jamie Teague’s sound design – specifically whatever was going on when Alyssa disappears into another room – raised questions, they may not be the ones that were intended.

We don’t know where the landmines are buried.” It’s an observation made and echoed through Uncharted, and it’s the tentative steps and occasional careless leaps made by the characters that make Bourque-Sheil’s play such an interesting watch. That it’s good is the best reason to see a play. But there are others, if you’re looking for more. It’s also important to support local playwrights, and risk-taking, and microplays, and immersive theater. And, not for nothing, this production is done with thought and care, right down to the little touches that brought a smile to my face, like a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper (diet) that makes an appearance at the end.

Performances continue at 7 and 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 6 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 and 5 p.m. Sundays at 1520 Rutland. Through February 24. For information, call 562-502-7469 or visit $20 to $25.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.