Apple Tree Theatre

I’m your wicked Uncle Ernie

I’m glad you won’t see or hear me

As I fiddle about

Fiddle about . . . –the Who’s Tommy

The deaf, dumb, and blind hero of the Who’s rock opera Tommy may have been unaware of the lustful advances of his uncle; but John, the protagonist of Ross Lehman’s powerful new play In My Father’s House, is all too aware of what happened to him when he was 11 years old. Now 27, John is haunted by memories of being repeatedly molested by his uncle Leo, the kindly man who raised him after a car accident killed his mother and crippled his father. Time has not healed the wounds on John’s heart; instead, the years have served to intensify his psychological disorientation, as vivid memory has become confusingly intertwined with even more vivid fantasy.

When he discovers that Leo is planning to adopt a preadolescent foster son, John tries to break out of his emotional paralysis and prevent a replay of the circumstances he suffered. But John’s initial burst of activity stalls as he crashes into the same maddening forces that made his own protracted abuse possible–Leo’s seductive, disarming manipulativeness, his father’s passive, reality-denying complicity, and John’s own shame and uncertainty.

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, In My Father’s House is a story of inaction in the face of unspeakable outrage. Like Hamlet, John knows he must do something yet fears he is incapable of doing anything. His grip on the reality of what happened to him and what is now about to happen to another boy is increasingly tenuous, challenged by everyone else’s insistence that John is mistaken, deluded, even lying.

Also like Hamlet, John is visited by a ghost. Not the ghost of his father–though his immobile, self-pitying father is certainly a phantom figure–but the ghost of himself. In an early scene, John the adult watches helplessly as little Johnny, his childish doppelganger, plays a game of hide-and-seek with Uncle Leo. As the family’s husky-voiced spinster housekeeper coaches the boy–“You’re cold, freezing . . . you’re getting warmer, boiling hot”–the audience is drawn into the horror of a world in which every seemingly innocent banality of family life is twisted into a monstrous threat. “If he was a snake he’d bite you,” exclaims the housekeeper just before Leo bounds out of the closet. “Your bath is drawn, milord,” Leo casually coos to his young charge later as he beckons the boy up the stairs to the shadowy second floor. And as little Johnny heads upstairs, possessed by a dread other adults write off as childish moodiness, adult John watches this eternally replaying action, unable to move beyond it or to change it.

Commissioned by Apple Tree Theatre in association with Child Abuse Prevention Services, a social-service agency, In My Father’s House on one level is a “problem play”–a closely observed case study of the environment in which child sexual abuse can flourish (the absence or inattention of John’s parents are an open invitation to Leo) and of the personality disorders such abuse can produce. Leo is revealed to have been abused as a child himself–a fairly common pattern–and John’s dialogues with his preteen alter ego are a disturbingly effective representation of his fragmented sense of self as well as a useful narrative device.

But Lehman’s script and Terry McCabe’s eloquent direction lift this work far above the dryness or melodrama usually associated with plays based on social issues. In My Father’s House is a riveting work of theater–a suspense drama that ensnares its audience with a sure sense of specific people in a specific place. It is certainly the best production I’ve ever seen at Apple Tree. Avoiding the inconsistency between professionals and nonprofessionals that has often afflicted other Apple Tree shows, McCabe has cast four excellent and experienced actors in the adult leading roles–Ray Chapman as John; Tim Monsion as Leo; Richard Burton Brown as the father, Hank; and Morgan McCabe as the housekeeper, Faye. Their ensemble interaction and the use of overlapping dialogue perfectly capture the weird mix of comfort and tension that characterizes this all too closely knit family. Monsion is especially memorable as the unstable Leo, shifting mercurially between crafty cruelty and a genuine belief in his own goodness and in the rightness of the “special thing” he has going with Johnny. The adults’ performances are solidly supported by two youngsters, William Bubon as tormented Johnny and Christian Robinson as Tommy, Leo’s new foster son, whose precocious worldliness acts as a breath of cold fresh air in the emotional hothouse created by John and Leo’s conflict.

Complementing the taut suspense of McCabe’s direction are Janice Barnett’s claustrophobic living-room set, David Gipson’s spooky lighting, and especially Mark Weston’s eerily cheery score, cute and bouncy but with an edge of mystery that sets the production’s tone superbly.