Cloud 42

at Chicago Filmmakers

Family Dancing, David Leavitt’s first collection of short stories, describes a world of car crashes, cancers, alienation, guilty trysts, subtle betrayals, and spaceships; but it’s not soap opera. What Leavitt describes, in stunning detail and with a touch of tender wistfulness, is the middle-class American family, an institution that often comes under fire (when it isn’t being mindlessly canonized). But refreshingly there isn’t a drop of cynicism or disdain in Leavitt’s portrait of the decaying American Dream. As he sees it, the family is basically untenable but has only itself for comfort. Getting on his knees to peer under neatly made beds, Leavitt finds poignancy in the dust bunnies, a measure of mundanity in the madness.

Two of his short stories have been adapted very skillfully (though one more successfully than the other) for the stage by Reader contributor Justin Hayford, who also directs this production for Cloud 42.

In “Territory” Neil, a young gay man, struggles to come to terms with the unspoken tension between himself and his mother over her too ready acceptance of his sexuality. When he was a child, she “had packed only the most nutritious lunches, had served on the PTA, had volunteered at the children’s library.” The day after Neil told her he was gay, “she got in touch with the Coalition of Parents of Lesbians and Gays. Within a year, she was president of it.” Embarrassed, frustrated, and suspicious of his mother’s efforts (“Would she have given birth to him had she known what he would grow up to be?”), Neil nevertheless brings home his lover, Wayne, to meet her. His guilt and insecurity mix uneasily with his love for Wayne, and his mother’s careful facade shows signs of strain in the face of concrete evidence of Neil’s sexuality.

Hayford’s adaptation retains the third-person narration. The narrator here is more dramatized than in the story, however: he boyishly defers to Neil’s mother as “Mrs. Campbell” and hovers around the characters with proprietary glee. The characters correct him, observe him, and from time to time take the story over. There is plenty of movement in Hayford’s staging, and not of the forced variety that sometimes occurs when a literary piece is adapted (as this piece is) nearly intact. The ensemble for both pieces–Carolyn J. Bowyer, Sarah Bradley, Patricia Donegan, Jane Ellen Lew, Rick Redondo, Michael Regier, Richard Sherman, and Hayford (stepping in for Ric Kraus on the night I saw it)–are a dynamic group who could probably make reading the telephone book out loud interesting.

The second piece suffers somewhat in comparison with the first, with its quick-paced, supercharged interactions. “Aliens” is told in the first person by a woman who’s survived a car accident that has left her family alienated from one another and uncommunicative. Her husband was mangled so badly he can barely walk or talk. Her son is immersed in a computer-generated reality, looking forward to the day when an entire life can be lived without ever leaving the house. And 11-year-old daughter Nina believes herself to be an alien whose true people will soon send a spaceship to fetch her home. She does little more than read the “Chronicles of Narnia” and stare out the window at the heavens.

It’s a difficult prospect, staging a tale about alienation. The decision to present this woman’s story mostly as monologue (though a few scenes are dramatized) is true to the spirit of Leavitt’s piece, but like the protagonist the story lacks movement and interaction, and it doesn’t always hold the audience’s attention. Isolated from her family (an effect enhanced by John Narun’s lighting design on the large Chicago Filmmakers stage), this mother feels dully helpless, and that feeling comes across powerfully. But if she’s sorely in need of human communication and interaction, so is the audience. The staging isn’t half as imaginative as in the first piece, but still “Aliens” doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has some solid acting and Leavitt’s dead-on prose to recommend it as well.