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Grieving with 'The Red Room'

The Shelter’s newest play considers how families move on after tragedy.

Photo by Michael Bernstein

It's Thanksgiving Day, and the three Hodge children are back home to celebrate with their parents, along with Kate's husband and baby and Ceeci's new boyfriend. But what could be a cheerful weekend of family togetherness has become something far more sinister—because six years ago, their oldest brother was murdered, and the sentencing is on Monday. But how can the family finally learn to move on when they're so divided on what they want the court to do with Tommy's killer?

The Red Room by Morgan McGuire is a play about the ugly, messy side of grief. When the story begins, oldest sister Kate—despite her newborn child—has spent the past six months away from her husband, living with her parents and frantically researching everything she can about the judge and trial to ensure the killer gets the harshest sentence possible. Ceeci, on the other hand, has distanced herself from her family and sought her own path toward forgiveness and moving on, while father Gerald's cancer and mother Jeannie's PTSD worsen and little brother John simply feels left behind.

This production directed by Jenny Beth Snyder pulls no punches; with three or four Hodges shouting over each other periodically throughout the play, you may well feel your blood pressure rising along with theirs. Such naturalistic acting is juxtaposed with a clever, inventive set design in which all the walls are papered with Kate's research as she struggles to get her statement to the court exactly right. And although there are a few brief moments of humor to lighten the mood, largely provided by the two guests at Thanksgiving dinner who are not related to Tommy, The Red Room is on the whole a very dark, intense piece, so be prepared.

There is an interesting element of dramatic irony in this play—only the audience knows both what is in Gerald's prepared statement for the court and which of his family members has read it. You will likely find yourself on the edge of your seat, waiting for someone to whip out the piece of paper that will change everything, making each second they don't a particularly tense viewing experience. Instead, we witness the breakdown of the entire family unit as unyielding opinions on the nature of justice come to a head.

It is unsurprising then that the two women who stand at the extremes of the spectrum between vengeance (Kate) and forgiveness (Ceeci) are the most fully fleshed out and dynamic characters. Meghan E. Jones' Kate is as spellbinding in her immense hatred of murderer Ives as Jessica O'Hara-Baker's Ceeci is collected and more quietly impassioned. Michael Kingsbaker also stands out as Kate's husband Patrick, frustrated by his inability to comfort a wife who won't admit the depths of her obsession, while Sheila Stasack's brief appearance in the second half of the play as their mother Jeannie in the midst of a PTSD breakdown is immensely powerful.

One of the particular strengths of this piece is how easily you can find yourself on the side of any of the members of the Hodge family in their all-encompassing feud. It is an impossible situation, in which all too human characters try to understand and move on from a senseless tragedy. And as much as this play is about balancing retribution and forgiveness in the context of criminal behavior, The Red Room avoids turning into a philosophical debate about prison reform.

Instead, it is about something much more messy and personal. Love and hatred are so mixed up within this one room that they cannot be separated, and no one's intentions are pure. And where does that leave us at the end, when everything comes out? Relieved, exhausted, frustrated and maybe, finally, ready to fight the next battle.

The Red Room plays at the TBG Theatre through July 30.

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