Griffin Theatre Company


Illinois Theatre Center

There’s something insidious about contemporary family dramas–the familiar situations, the archetypal family members, the soap opera undercurrents mobilized by Crisis or Christmas. Then come the routine confrontations and predictable revelations, the resolution of petty grudges that have ballooned over time, usually through the liberal laying on of sentiment. The main objective of a family drama would seem to be the exploration of family relationships, but often these relationships are so pat that exploration is rendered unnecessary. What such dramas deliver, in the end, is reassurance. A collection of strangers gathered around a barbecue in act one is bound to dissolve into tearful proclamations of devotion in act two, proving that everything is OK–you don’t need to like your family in order to love them. And you can leave the theater secure in the knowledge that yours is not the only screwed-up house on the block.

All this is not to say that family dramas don’t work. But often they don’t work very hard.

Generations, by Dennis Clontz, works very hard. Being given its midwest premiere by Griffin Theatre Company in its new, impressively renovated home in the Calo Theatre, the play struggles to take off but never gets clear of the sort of foggy sentimentality that plagues nostalgic prodigal sons and daughters and made-for-TV movies.

Retired Joshua Houser has taken his wife, Rachel, from her nursing home to stay at the old family cabin in the mountains of Oregon. When their grown children come to meet them there, Rachel, who is nearly incapacitated by senility, thinks that it’s 1972 and her children are teenagers again. Joshua instructs the family to humor her, and so sons Aron and Joseph make a game of reliving youthful resentments, with the help of Joseph’s girlfriend Lilith, whom Rachel has mistaken for her daughter. This daughter, Judith, shows up of course, throwing the family balance out of whack. There is no place for her in this scenario, a situation, she claims bitterly, that has always held true. But she agrees to play at being Aron’s high school sweetheart, and the game goes swimmingly until Joshua informs the children that he plans to keep Rachel at the cabin, he will not bring her back to the nursing home. A battle ensues over Rachel’s proper handling, and questions arise about Joshua’s own mental health. “I won’t discard her like some used commodity,” he roars. “If that makes me senile, so be it.”

The relationship between a ferocious, frightened man and the stunned, wandering wife he clings to and cares for is worth exploring. Unfortunately, Clontz instead clutters the play with a lot of familial pettifoggery, relegating Rachel to a near-coma, crowding her out of the picture as effectively as though she were already back in the nursing home.

And aside from the relationship between husband and wife, the family’s problems seem trivial and cliched. Eldest son Aron is dutiful, reasonable, and trapped in a passionless marriage. As played by Ed Shimp, he is an unceasingly cheerful creep who is still reliving his high school basketball career. Younger son Joseph is sullen and rebellious and disappointed in everyone, though his high horse doesn’t afford him a clear enough view to treat his long-suffering girlfriend Lilith (jean Campbell) with much consideration. (Jamie Denton gives Joseph energy and some imagination, but he needs to beware of his native Nashville twang creeping up on him at odd moments.) Judith competes with the boys, whines about not being loved as much as they, and is almost as abominable to Lilith as Joseph is. Peggy Dunne treats Judith with sympathy, but it’s difficult for anyone else to. Mel Zellman uses his mellifluous voice to convey Joshua’s fatherly grandeur, pain, and panic but never commits physically to the moment.

The production runs toward pregnant pauses and deep, meaningful exchanges, but for all that director Bill Burnett manages to keep the pace alive and steady, the tone earnest, and the staging simple. Best is Stephanie Gerckens’s crumbling family cottage, complete with crabgrass and dead branches on the roof. Sitting on its sagging porch, Patrice Fletcher is convincing and heartbreaking as Rachel, rousing herself occasionally to snatch at past happinesses.

Generations works on the simplest of sentimental levels: it works if you don’t go expecting the Houser family to break any molds.

In Elliott Hayes’s Homeward Bound we have Bonnie and Glen Beacham, another older couple blessed with children who had the good sense to grow up and get out of the house. A likable couple, nothing can quite topple them from their firm middle-class pins, although Hayes hits them with everything he’s got: adultery, divorce, alcoholism, homosexuality, and euthanasia.

In order to fit all these issues into one mid-sized evening of theater, the Beachams have their children over for dinner. The whiny, manipulative Norris and her nebbishy husband are on the cusp of a divorce; Norris is carrying another man’s child. Homosexual son Nick brings his alcoholic lover Guy. Over champagne Glen announces that, with Bonnie’s blessing, he intends to kill himself–“or have someone else do it”–before his (unspecified) terminal disease can rob him of dignity.

“We live in an age when scandal is relegated to the routine,” sighs Glen, and it is on this axis that Hayes’s edgy comedy would revolve. “Everything is eking towards banality. . .” Banality is a dangerous premise for a play, however, a one-note joke that can easily wear out. Hayes’s characters are glib, literate, defiantly middle-class, and therefore (in their own eyes) untouchable. But if they’re honestly blase about their lives, why on earth would an audience be interested in them? Especially when the crises that pile up are never other than predictable?

The answer lies in the play’s subtext, and it is here that the Illinois Theatre Center does the play a grave disservice. By taking everything on the page at face value, they make it difficult to decipher what may really be going on in the hearts and minds of this family. When Bonnie (Etel Billig in the best performance of the show) quips to her husband that “euthanasia is the epitome of decadence,” it’s just that–a quip, a throwaway. Dazed disbelief, a creeping sense of being threatened, the fierce refusal to face facts do not make an appearance until the final five minutes of the play, and by then it’s too late. Banality has won.