Five Rooms of Furniture

Organic Theater Company

Turning pain into payoffs seems to be a peculiarly American institution, and a vexing one. It’s easy to chirp that no amount of money can possibly make up for mind-numbing loss when you’re not the one going through the torment. At the same time, the promise of earthly rewards for suffering all too often leads to the gruesome game of “my pain can beat up your pain.”

Dhana-Marie Branton delineates this game well in her semiautobiographical play, now receiving its world premiere from the Organic Theater Company: her characters have suffered wrongs almost too harsh to bear. Branton, a poet turned playwright, has a fine feeling for imagery and a whip-smart wit that comes through in deliciously nasty one-liners, and if her script owes a debt to other African-American playwrights, at least she has excellent taste in influences.

Rufus is a divorced retired gardener who lives in the basement of his older sister’s Chicago home. A diabetic, he’s had both legs amputated below the knee but remains determinedly independent, swaggering around on artificial limbs and a cane and sparring with his termagant sister, Ina Mae. Also living with Ina Mae is her sweet-tempered but timid daughter Vernell, who quietly runs interference between her mother and uncle and cares for her mentally ill husband, Gary.

The storm cloud in their lives is Rachel, Rufus’s daughter. A naval officer eager to get out of uniform, she comes home to claim some antique furniture that Rufus’s former employer, a Holocaust survivor, bequeathed to him. Like Walter Lee, who dreams of opening a liquor store in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Rachel wants to open a vintage-furniture store–and find out what really happened the night she and her mother moved out of their house, after a visit from Ina Mae. Rachel rightly suspects that something was going on other than what Ina Mae told Rufus–that his wife had left him for another man.

Once Rachel arrives on the scene, the play turns into a series of clashes, rapprochements, breakdowns, and revelations. Infidelity, alcoholism, mental illness, attempted suicide, interracial marriage, the debilitating effects of chronic unemployment and menial labor, the hellish legacy of the Holocaust and of the jim crow south–all are intertwined in Branton’s ambitious but overreaching script. What makes the more melodramatic passages work is Jonathan Wilson’s adroit staging and fine ensemble.

Though Branton is working familiar territory, she manages to give her characters enough sympathy and strength to make them seem more than stereotypes of working-class blacks. Still, it’s easy to hear echoes of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in Five Rooms of Furniture: in that play an elaborately carved piano from slavery days symbolizes the clash between honoring the past and cutting it loose in order to move on, while here Rufus sees the inheritance from his employer as a means of reuniting his divided family (he also has an estranged son, a successful doctor married to a white woman). Like Wilson’s piano, Branton’s furniture is marked forever by those who once owned it–each item has a Jewish surname on its underside, a grim reminder of those who didn’t survive. Ina Mae believes that the long-suffering Vernell, not Rachel, should have the furniture. And when she realizes what it’s worth and how much of it there is, she tries to guilt-trip Rufus, revealing a horrific event in the south that changed both their lives forever.

Unfortunately Branton depends too much on loaded symbols. Rufus still keeps out a water dish for Rachel’s long dead dog, Joy. And while Rachel is trying to coax information out of Vernell about the night her mother moved out, she’s also portentously explaining a new Japanese stereo’s remote control: “This button lets you move forward, and this one sends you back.”

The relationship between Ina Mae and Rufus is the crux of the show, and LaDonna Tittle and Ernest Perry Jr. are entrancing to watch. Whether the brother and sister are trading quips, dancing to the tunes on Rufus’s new stereo (one Rachel bought him to replace the antique Victrola she covets), or facing down the past, these two actors have the sort of chemistry that makes you believe they’ve spent years under the same roof. While Perry does fine work with the good-hearted but stubborn Rufus, Tittle has the harder job–making us understand her meddlesome character. Ina Mae’s bitterness comes through early in a comment to Rufus about his days as a gardener. The problem with flowers, she says, is “you forget to water them one day, they get pissed off and die.” Parched for affection and justice, Ina Mae is mightily pissed off but not at all ready to give up the ghost.

Penelope Walker as Vernell plays a minor-key variation on Ina Mae’s frustration. Deeply desiring children, saddled with a husband whose army career ended as a result of his psychological disturbances (she rewards him for taking his medication with kisses), and never having seen the world the way her seafaring cousin has, Vernell longs for change. One of the better set pieces in Branton’s script is Vernell’s monologue about the pain of waiting for life to start. “You got rage, and you’re still trying to throw nice around it,” Rufus tells her.

Sandra Watson’s performance as Rachel, though suitably brisk and brittle, unfortunately leaves open the question whether she cares more about the furniture or her father. The character of Vernell’s husband is also underdeveloped–though Stefano Mizell’s physique is on frequent display, as Gary continues his army exercise regimen. We never know exactly what caused his problems, and this lack of context means that his outbursts and breakdowns occasionally feel like comic relief at the expense of a disturbed character. But Mizell does convey with almost puppylike enthusiasm Gary’s desperate love for his wife and affection and respect for Rufus.

The cheap wood paneling and jumbled heap of antique chairs of Brenda Sabatka’s set capture the conflict between the mundane present and the explosive potential of the past and future. Cleverly, Wilson allows only one of the precious chairs to be set at the “laughing table,” an antique where Rufus and Rachel shared happier times. Standing alone, the chair pays mute testimony to each individual’s isolated world of pain and loss. As Ina Mae tells Vernell, there are “no gathering points” in the family–there’s no way for all of them to sit down together in remembrance of what they’ve lost and celebration of what they’ve survived.

Branton’s ending fails to resolve the issues she raises. But then people face many sorrows that can never be ameliorated by pat attempts at closure, and many injuries that can never be healed with the Band-Aid of material recompense.