Kinetic Theatre Company

at Avenue Theatre

The truism “To know all is to forgive all” is full of wishful liberal thinking, but a play such as Total Abandon restores its power. Larry Atlas’s wrenching script takes us deep inside the despicable crime of infanticide–deeper than we could ever imagine. Director Leon Palles matches Atlas’s written agonies with the staging in this Kinetic Theatre production, which is anchored by a scary performance by Reid Ostrowski, an actor who takes dramatic risks no theatrical underwriter would ever insure. Total Abandon exactly registers the chilled feeling Emily Dickinson meant by “Zero at the Bone.”

The play stems from a recent real-life horror story: a father who had brutally beaten his child opposed a hospital’s decision to take the comatose child off a life-support system–because if the boy died, the father might be charged with murder. When the story broke, I thought the maneuver was a typical lizard-lawyer ruse to delay justice and put the blame on the doctors if the boy died. An evil man wanted to evade a punishment he thoroughly deserved. It seemed so black and white.

It wasn’t. Plumbing the other side of evil, Total Abandon tells the rest of a tragedy that facts alone could never explain–what we learn won’t let us forgive, but at least we know. Though the play opens with a psychologist droning the legal definitions of criminal intent and state of mind, soon the terms turn real. Lenny Keller, the father, refuses to bail himself out of jail and faces a hearing at which his court-appointed lawyer will try to get an injunction to prevent Tommy, Lenny’s brain-dead, one-year-old son, from being “unplugged” from life support.

The lawyer knows the argument will fail. But Lenny insists on the move–not to save his skin but because, he says, “I’m fighting for my boy.” That explanation seems obscenity itself–why would the man who broke the bones and crushed the mind from his child want to keep what’s left of him alive? But Lenny means it: he clings to a dream that he’ll someday play with Tommy, and Tommy will once more show Lenny how much he loves him. If that dream is true, how could the horror happen? The answer rests in the ambiguity of the title: Total Abandon refers not just to the rage Lenny felt as he bludgeoned his son but also to his own life.

Lenny can lie when he needs to–he calls himself a test-driver for an Oldsmobile plant, then admits he’s just a parking-lot attendant. But when he torturously fills in his life’s blanks, he chokes out the truth. As is often the case with abusers, he reveals that in his own family there was a total lack of encouragement and abundant mental abuse. This is a man whose father hurt him, not by blows but by corrosively denying any possibility of love; the father compelled the future father to hate his warmest feelings, to fear to cry or ever dare feel sorry for himself, and above all to connect sex with violence and physical contact with weakness.

Inevitably, that twisted legacy makes Lenny explode when his baby starts crying uncontrollably. The act triggers a killer memory of how Lenny’s father once punished him when he was six years old for saying he wanted to get married so that he’d never have to sleep alone. Though cut off from a father who passed on failure like a bad gene, Lenny wasn’t always alone. But he was abandoned by friends and neighbors when his wife left him, and so, pathetically enough, had only his son to care for him. When Tommy showed the wrong weakness, Lenny snapped, panicking at his own failure as a father and fulfilling his father’s prophecy of doom–“You’re just going to get what you deserve.” (In an ugly irony, Lenny receives from court psychologists and doctors all the help he never got when he needed it.)

I know that a compassionate explanation of Lenny’s crime sounds like a gutless extenuation of an unspeakable act. Don’t take my word for it, but when you feel Reid Ostrowski’s performance, Lenny’s crime of passion makes terrible sense. I hate to imagine the agonizing subtexts Ostrowski summons up to unleash his devastating, panic-stricken portrayal; but whatever the source, he delivers with precision.

If you can bear to watch, it’s all there. Trapped under harsh lights, squirming on his wooden chair, Ostrowski’s Lenny seems to tear himself apart in order to hold onto several contradictory personas: the dutiful father who, though abandoned himself, still took care of Tommy’s every need; the stunted son who could never get or give enough love; and the killer father who finally connects with his accumulated rage. They’re all there simultaneously. Watching Ostrowski’s agonies, you know that nothing the law can do to Lenny is even remotely as terrible as what he did to himself by killing Tommy.

The supporting roles–two doctors, a lawyer, and briefly, the brutal voice of Lenny’s father–never steal the focus from Lenny’s nightmare; knowing they can’t match Ostrowski’s energy, director Palles rightly reduces them to ancillary professionals. Paul Jeans, as Lenny’s exasperated public defender, is sometimes wooden, but his helplessness comes across along with his buttoned-down efficiency. Playing Lenny’s reluctantly sympathetic doctor, Bob McDonald reveals a clinician who’s doggedly trying to understand a seemingly inexcusable act; Brad Miller, as the court psychologist, works just as hard to convey the opposite–to him, Lenny and the other monstrous abusers whose brutality he regularly sees are better seen as so much random evil that should be exorcised. In effect, he articulates the audience’s own initial response.

Total Abandon shows how wrong that conclusion is. Every father is capable of Lenny’s act; as Atlas’s ordeal shows, the more you try not to admit the possibility, the more likely you are to one day do it.