Victory Gardens Theater

Three Ways Home is largely a string of narrative monologues, set in the past tense, given by three characters: a welfare mother (Dawn), her 16-year-old son (Frankie), and a volunteer social worker (Sharon). These three characters relate the events leading up to, and shortly following, Frankie’s suicide. But the play is less about Frankie than it is about the friendship that develops between Dawn and Sharon. In a few brief scenes you actually see this friendship in action–in the present tense, with dialogue–but even then the tentative fourth wall is broken with interpolated asides to the audience. Apparently playwright Casey Kurtti felt that this was a story that needed to be told, not enacted, and frequently explained in the process.

Rashomon it’s not, by any means. The story is told once, chronologically, each character providing various pieces of the story. These characters are all meant to be sympathetic and taken at their word, so no dissension arises from the three separate perspectives, and a coherent quilt of a story emerges. The audience is coaxed to snuggle under that quilt and have a heartwarming experience as the human spirit’s heroic indomitability, once again, wins out over its tragic vulnerability. Somehow I never got that feeling. I think there were too many holes in the quilt.

Each character’s story has a hole you could drive a Mack truck through. It’s both a compliment to and a criticism of Kurtti that her characters are more intriguing in what they conceal than in what they reveal.

Dawn, who’s black, stands accused of child abuse and Sharon, the white volunteer social worker, is assigned to her case. Dawn claims that her daughter simply fell off a bed and that this whole child-abuse charge is racist slander. Now, to top it all off, she has this do-gooder messing in her private business. Dawn also complains, several times, of the enormous responsibilities of being a mother of four; and there’s a certain undercurrent of resentment, as if she had been saddled involuntarily with those responsibilities by her children. She does worry about her children, and she’s possessive of them–especially Frankie–but she never shows much interest in them. E.J. Murray portrays Dawn as a good mother and a sassy, streetwise ghetto survivor, but Dawn still draws my suspicion. After all, Frankie kills himself. If it were me rather than Sharon on this case, I’d sure as hell take a closer look at Dawn’s household.

Sharon doesn’t though. She’s on the defensive from the start. It’s social guilt that prompts her to volunteer as a social worker in the first place. Then, when she meets Dawn–who’s hostile, protecting her turf–Sharon tries to win her over as a friend. Earning Dawn’s trust and affection, instead of overseeing the welfare of Dawn’s children, soon becomes Sharon’s primary goal. She tries to do this a number of ways: by encouraging Dawn to read The Color Purple, by taking her out now and then, by paying her huge electric bill, and by giving her a bunch of stuffed animals for the kids. She even exaggerates Dawn’s fitness as a mother in a custody hearing, when Frankie is hauled in for prostitution. Now maybe I’m having trouble distinguishing between a dam and a dyke, but I have to ask, does Sharon want a friend here or does she want to play house?

Consider. Sharon is a hip, flip, culturally literate, insecure yet spunky yuppie. She senses a void in her life, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend (named Norbert, no less) just isn’t cutting it. Shannon Cochran (as Sharon) captures all these qualities; even her nonchalant rapport with the audience is a cover for a bottled-up neediness. Then she meets Dawn, the tough survivor, the childbearer. Naturally, Sharon is attracted. They don’t jump in the sack together–this play is a little subtler than that. But their friendship is consummated when Dawn divorces her husband and Sharon dumps Norbert. After that, strangely enough, they drift apart; yet there’s a satisfied, wondrous smile on Sharon’s face when she later learns that Dawn named her fifth child Dominique Sharon.

We’ve neglected Frankie, and I suspect Dawn has too. If Dawn is lying to us, and Sharon to herself, then Frankie is comparatively forthright, although he keeps his own counsel. He’s eager enough to talk about superheroes–the X-Men, Wolverine in particular. He has all their comic books. And he’s so fervently devoted to the X-Men that it’s not hard to picture him, when he freaks out, flying off the tenement roof to join his mutant comrades. But Frankie doesn’t talk about how he makes his money off of pederasts. Does he scam them, or does he, you know, do it with them? He won’t tell us and he won’t tell Dawn on the couple of occasions she tries to talk to him. Who is Frankie, what’s he up to, how’d he get so crazy, and just what kind of parental care is he getting anyway? Playwright Kurtti deftly evades all these questions.

Frankie’s suicide remains a mystery. On one level, it’s just a plot device illustrating Dawn’s courageous survivorship. But Leelai Demoz gives such an electric, well-tuned, imaginative characterization that even a playwright can’t dispatch Frankie so easily. On another level, it’s not really a suicide. Frankie just flies off to join his surrogate family, the X-Men, since all the dubiously acquired cash and gifts that he brings home fail to buy him a place in his own family. Is it that he has no father? Is that why Frankie leaves a real world of depraved men for a mythical world of supermen? Perhaps even, on a haunting subtextual level, Frankie is the sacrificial male, making way and room for what Dawn calls her “good-luck child,” Dominique Sharon. But that sounds like something out of the Eleusinian mysteries.

Rarely have I seen so schizophrenic a play, with the characters and situation pulling in one direction, and the playwright in another. On the one hand you have this didactic, authorial tone, facilitated by the narrative format, which allows the playwright to divulge and explain all the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings. Kurtti shows us how women can bond, exchange warm, nonjudgmental fuzzies, and empower themselves. Then, on the other hand, you have these characters whose actions don’t quite ring true with their stated motivations. You also have a wealth of subtext and what must be subconscious bleedthrough on Kurtti’s part. Frankly, I wish she’d write the play she’s sitting on. It has a lot more potential.

Victory Gardens doesn’t see this potential either. Director Sandy Shinner follows Kurtti’s lead, and the program notes make a big deal about how “presentational theater” is more intimate and accessible to the audience. I see just the opposite. It’s like that in real life isn’t it? The person who’s overly direct with you is either telling you what he wants you to hear, or else he doesn’t know the first thing about himself. Bad faith: The playwright has no faith in her characters. And the production puts its faith in the playwright instead of the play itself.