Before getting to the whats of The Willows, Kerri-Ann McCalla’s family drama about melancholy and traumatic loss, which is getting a polished world premiere at Bootleg Theatre, it may shed some light to talk about the what-it-is-nots.
For one thing, though its narratives intersect at the African-American Willows Funeral Home (courtesy of designer Amanda Knehans’ elegant wallpaper and woodwork set pieces) and center on two well-heeled black families — one with the surname Black, the other led by a white husband/father — the play has very little to say about race. In fact, McCalla’s script is so culturally nonspecific, its naturalistic language so insistently neutral, that it is easy to imagine a cast of any color playing the two families without an audience being any the wiser.
Perhaps that’s because The Willows is after something more universal and fundamental to our humanity — the dynamics of grief. It gnaws at the ailing funeral director, Mr. Black (the fine Thomas Silcott), as he irritably grooms his still-unmarried son Mark (Napoleon Tavale) to take over the Rye, New York, family business. And it fairly paralyzes the John family, whose members arrive at the undertaker to bury their only son and brother, Georgie Jr., whose body has been flown back from Toronto following a fatal car crash.
But the emotional void left by the unexpected death also underscores the role the deceased man played as a kind of family lynchpin. It has left mother Lena (Lorinda Hawkins Smith) unusually dependent for support on daughter Pie (Kacie Rogers), and that has triggered the abrasive jealousy of over-controlling sister Christine (Cloie Wyatt Taylor), who fancies herself a kind of family fixer. The most inconsolably distraught of the family, however, is George Sr. (a persuasive Paul Dillon), whose own recent diagnosis of age-related dementia seems to only aggravate the loss.
An unexpected connection between the two families emerges in the person of the pregnant Maya (Stefanée Martin), Georgie’s Toronto widow, who several years before played host to Mark during a romantically charged layover in the Canadian metropolis. That still-smoldering attraction is enough for Maya to open up to him about Georgie’s relapse into alcoholism, his chronic marital infidelity and the couple’s separation just days before Georgie’s drunken car accident. But in the eyes of the Johns, the tumultuous backstory looks suspiciously like Maya's failure to stand by her man, and she quickly finds herself a convenient lightning rod for the family’s torrent of guilt and anguish.
For such a realistic, plot-driven drama, that turns out to be a lot of storytelling balls to keep in the air, and McCalla’s juggling skills aren’t always what they could be. Much of the conflict between Mark and his father, for example, is based on an ignorance of the elder Black’s medical condition that gets confusingly contradicted later in the play. Likewise, the John family’s angry Act 2 rejection of Maya unconvincingly ignores the glaring fact that she is very visibly carrying Georgie’s sole namesake and heir. And if the Mark-Maya romance shows off McCalla’s knack for writing winsomely metaphoric love scenes (especially in a charmingly realized rap-soul karaoke duet by Tavale and Martin), its reliance on flashback feels unduly wounding to the momentum of the main event.
Happily, Hanna’s uniformly muscular ensemble brings the script's sometimes poetically lean language to roaring life. Standouts include Silcott, who delivers a heart-achingly familiar portrait of taciturn dignity collapsing under inexpressible despair. As the John family heavy, Wyatt Taylor is superb at suggesting the warring hurts that whet her character’s razorlike talons. And Dillon is especially poignant as a grieving father all too aware that his cherished memories will shortly be erased by the coming Alzheimer’s fog.
What may be most intriguing about the play is the choice to produce it. Coming on the heels of last year’s similarly themed I Carry Your Heart by Georgette Kelly, it suggests that Bootleg is consciously exploring an overlooked if therapeutic dimension of the stage through what might be called the Theater of Affect. To that end, McCalla expertly nails the paradoxical dynamics of how families in extremis respond to catastrophic loss, and how simple misunderstanding can fan smoldering fears, quiet insecurities and petty resentments into full-blown conflagration. Comprehending searing emotional truths like that are the first step toward healing.
Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; through May 5. (213) 389-3856, bootlegtheater.org.
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