Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of Hugging the Shoulder at Represented Theatre

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

When Cain told God "I am not my brother’s keeper," he set off a still unresolved moral debate about the limits of filial duty. In his tightly-written Hugging the Shoulder - now in a compelling production at Represented Theatre Company-playwright Jerrod Bogard shows the consequences of one man’s attempt to rescue his brother from the perils of drug addiction.

Thankfully, Bogard’s conflict isn’t nearly as straightforward as the Biblical clash between Cain and Abel. Derrick (Nicholas Troy) has kidnapped his brother Jeremy (Ted Powell), stuffing him in the back of a van and setting off across the country to detox the latter from his heroin addiction. With some onstage tinkering by the cast in dimmed lights, Brian Grace-Duff’s set unfolds to double as both the van’s interior and Jeremy’s apartment, and for all of its 90 minutes, Bogard’s play flashes back and forth from the road trip to the events that precipitated its necessity.

But Bogard’s script offers no easy moral hero or sympathetic victim. Derrick drinks and smokes pot with Jeremy even while the latter self-destructs and beats up his junkie girlfriend Christy (Erikka Walsh). And while both clearly grew up in a shitty family plagued by substance abuse problems, the younger brother shows no pity, saying "Hey, I grew up there too." Adding intrigue, Bogard smartly conceals Derrick’s motives. Does he want to act the part of the hero, or simply not feel guilty about his brother’s condition? Or does he secretly love Christy, and need to clean his brother up to get him out of the picture?

As a pair of rednecks who discuss the philosophical implications of NASCAR, I found it difficult to identify with either and am surprised that I wasn’t thoroughly annoyed throughout by Jeremy. But Powell’s deft, naturalistic performance and accurate evolution of his character kept me locked on his performance in every scene (especially during the excruciating withdraw scenes, in which he’s fully comprehensible while speaking fast, clipped sentences). And thanks to Bogard’s equally convincing writing that’s rife with apt metaphors, I wanted to know what happened to this pair, what drove Derrick to kidnap his brother, and how it would end. You can’t ask for much more out of theatre than that.

Still, I think I would’ve enjoyed the play more if Bill Egan’s direction wasn’t so serious. Most of Jeremy’s lines seem tailored for laughs, but he plays them straight, even when the script hands him a fantastic line calling Walt Disney World "Walt-dismal world." While Christiana Molldrem’s slick lighting design makes the passing of cars on the highway believable, Egan’s pacing lingers too long on the highway scenes which aren’t as interesting as the back-story; and I wish the transitions appeared more seamless (though this is a minor complaint). The unoriginal music selection that plays during the breaks shows Jeremy shooting up to the strains of Pink Floyd’s "Comfortably Numb," and later, playing the obvious after he flatly declares "You want things to be different. I want things to be different. You can’t always get what you want."

As for the mystery of Derrick’s motives? In one very disturbing scene, Walsh’s performance fills in the blanks; she shoots up while completely nailing a monologue comparing Disney World (the "happiest place on earth") to her heroin addiction, and making me feel slimy with a single line ("it’s better if you don’t"). Throughout, Troy (as Derrick) explores the oft-complicated bond between brothers, though he only fully convinces in his final scene.

Which is unfortunately the moment the play self-destructs. With only five minutes of stage time left, Bogard totally shifts gears, going from an engaging, well-written melodrama about filial responsibility to a stupidly wrapped-up morality play about the perils of doing nothing. The ending initially disturbs (thanks to Powell’s dead delivery), but also feels cheap and dumb. Cain could at least blame God for the sudden shift in his fortunes. But I just watched a 90-minute road trip to get to an unlikely, uninteresting, and dramatically over-visited destination.

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