In Lyle Kessler’s The Great Divide, director David Fofi’s final production before departing the Elephant Stages, a father and two sons enmeshed in a lifetime of resentment and abuse replay their rancor in the presence of a one-armed psychopath and his sister.
Like other dysfunctional-family dramas, the fireworks are precipitated by a death in the family. Here it’s an ersatz event, a staged demise orchestrated by the family patriarch (Richard Chaves) for the purpose of luring home his elder son, Colman (Adam Haas Hunter), an itinerant drifter who despises the old man with all his being. Colman’s brother, Dale (Brandon Bales), shares some of these feelings but has learned to live with their domineering parent. Dale works two jobs and in his spare time writes stories, which he keeps locked away in a safe, privy to no eye but his own.
When the play begins, Dad is on the sofa where Dale’s left him lying for two days, convinced he’s dead. Colman, who wouldn’t put anything past the crafty old string-puller, suggests they pinch him to make sure. Sure enough, the “corpse” leaps to life. There follows a flood of recriminatory exposition, with sturm and drang about Dad undermining his sons, abusing his wife and living life only for himself. In return, the elder man sneers at Colman for his wastrel life. It’s familiar stuff (with only passing mention of how Dad managed to play dead for two whole days).
The play alters course after the menacing Noah (Mark McClain Wilson) and his attractive sibling Lane (Kimberly Alexander, alternating with Kate Huffman) break into the family home. Are they there to burgle this shabby homestead? Maybe, but Noah also has other plans. After sheltering Colman for two years, Noah has now tracked him down, incensed that he’d bedded his sister and then disappeared. For a hot minute, all of Colman’s problems with his father seem inconsequential as he stares down the barrel of Noah’s gun.
That moment, which comes midway through the play, should have us biting our nails or on the edge of our seats. It doesn't, however, since in spite of some meaty monologues and testosterone-driven characters (juicy opportunities for actors), the plot’s joints and beams appear all too standard and visible.
Still, from the beginning Hunter’s kinetic performance — he slips into his role like a second skin — draws one in. Bale holds his own as his quiescent brother with a sensitive secret, with more than one reverberating moment. The other performers still have some ways to go. Chaves has presence and a strong voice but there’s little depth behind his delivery. Ditto for Wilson, who cashes in on his role’s flamboyance instead. Alexander settles for playing her brother’s reactive sidekick, a bland choice.
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Lillian Theatre, 1036 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood; through Aug. 29. plays411.com/divide.
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