Lesser America takes Thanksgiving dinner to a new level at Theater for the New City.
Photo by Hunter Canning
It's 1995, and brothers Tom and Grant are home for Thanksgiving, digging up memories that their family has suppressed for ten years. It's also 1961, as Maggie and Hank meet for the first time in a bar, and sparks fly as they begin to imagine a future together. Wyoming, a new play by Brian Watkins, tells the story of a family piecing together the most traumatic day of their pasts, uncovering what everyone won't say about how and why their father died.
On that night in 1961, Maggie and Hank's drunken one-night stand results in Adam, the oldest son in the family. In 1995, Tom and Grant can't find a trace of their brother in the old family photos they queue up on the slide projector, and wonder who erased him from their family history. These two storylines weave back and forth as Adam's story comes together, and the family slowly realizes just how much they don't know about the day their oldest brother killed their father.
It's a fascinating use of time, especially as none of the seven actors ever leave the stage during the performance. Whether that means Hank and Maggie speaking across decades when their children quote them in a story thirty years later or Hank wandering unseen through Thanksgiving dinner ten years after his death, it is clear that all of their family is always present. Death, jail, exile—nothing can truly drive them apart.
The set of Wyoming is little more than a few tables, a bed and a lot of beer bottles, but with just a few props and a light Midwestern drawl, the location is perfectly set. Sarah's Walkman and Tetris game make her the ambassador of 1995, while the slide projector Tom and Grant dig out of their mother's basement sends them back to their childhood, one grainy image on the wall at a time. Together, these two plot lines recount the story of a single scene of their family history, all of the pieces falling into place only at the very end.
"You’re in Wyoming to get space I think," says oldest daughter April. "You can stare out across it and not see a soul for days and really truly escape into the earth, if you wanted to, but we don’t." That sense of connection and unity is the driving force of this play, featuring a host of wildly different characters who are still very clearly one family. From the parallels between the three generations of women—smoking, unplanned pregnancy—to the most masterful awkward family dinner scene imaginable, love binds these people together whether they like it or not.
Brothers Tom (Daniel Abeles) and Grant (Nate Miller) are in some ways complete opposites, the intellectual and the everyman, but both actors play their parts with a degree of honesty and intensity that immediately draws you into the mystery. Carter Hudson as Hank and Laura Ramadei as Maggie, meanwhile, dance across the stage with a casual laissez-faire that masks the darker fears about the future they'd both rather not think about. When Ramadei transforms into Maggie the grandmother, later on, we see the toll those worries have taken, as she fights as hard as she can against being honest with her children about the past.
Sarah Sokolovic's April is a more complex character, always on the edge of losing control. Her drunken monologue directed at an invisible date telling the story of how Hank died is one of the most entertaining moments of the play, oddly enough, while her punishment of daughter Sarah is one of the most uncomfortable. Layla Khoshnoudi as Sarah is as much a plot device as a character, driving conversations exactly where they need to go by sheer coincidence--though her lines are hilarious as well.
And then there's Adam (Roger Lirtsman), who is so silent for most of the play that you almost forget he is there. That total humility, in contrast to the whirlwind of emotions everyone else directs at him, brings everything together, and makes Wyoming into far more than a single moment of family catharsis.
The play skirts around the issue of how abusive Hank actually was as a father, deliberately refusing to answer the question of whether he deserved what happened to him—whether Adam really was acting in self-defense. Ultimately, that's not what matters, just like the mystery of what was in the locked box Hank showed Maggie before he died. What is important in the story is the regaining of trust, allowing this family to become whole again.
Wyoming is both a gripping family drama and a gruesome thriller, though no violence actually takes place onstage. Instead, it is in the recounting that both of those lenses become important for Maggie, April, Tom, Grant, April and Adam to understand their past, and their future together. It's a lot to ask of one family dinner, and Lesser America certainly nails it.
Wyoming plays at Theater for the New City through January 31.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.