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A Home Across The Ocean

homeacrosstheocean01.jpg

Photo: Antonio Miniño
(L-R) Mark Emerson, David Stallings, and Lavita Shaurice Burr


Reviewed: September 21, 2010
Produced by: Maieutic Theatre Works
Venue: Studio Theatre, Theatre Row
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with intermission)

Written by: Cody Daigle
Directed by: Dev Bondarin
Producer: Martha Goode
Set Designer: Blair Mielnik
Costume Designer: Rachel Dozier-Ezell
Lighting Designer: Dan Gallagher
Sound Designer: Kimberly Fuhr-Carbone

Assistant Sound Designer: Carrie Cook
Production Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer
Assistant Stage Manager/Prop Designer: Nichol C. Rosas-Ullman

Alex Bond as Grethe Rast
David Stallings as Connor Rast
Mark Emerson as Daniel Bader
Lavita Shaurice Burr as Penny
Dathan B. Williams as Mhambi Nobhule

This Ocean Is Easy To Cross
As befits a play with "ocean" in the title, A Home Across The Ocean, by Cody Daigle, is a moist play. Not a scene goes by without some character standing on the verge of tears (of laughter, of anger, of relief, of joy); it seems that whenever Mr. Daigle wants to illustrate emotional authenticity, on come the waterworks.
Connor (David Stallings) and Daniel (Mark Emerson), a gay middle-class couple (though we never do learn what they do for a living), bring Penny (Lavita Shaurice Burr), a 13-year-old African-American girl who has been through the wringer of the foster-care system, into the their home. They plan to adopt her but have agreed to something like a trial run as foster parents to see if the situation will work out.
Penny arrives three weeks after David's father, Anthony, died from a massive heart attack, and Grethe (Alex Bond), David's mother, seems insufficiently grief-stricken after 35 years of marriage -- she not only wants to offload the father's suits to Goodwill, she writes a letter to Mhambi Nobhule (Dathan Williams), a college lover originally from Nigeria, letting him know, in so many words, that she's available. Mhambi, for his part, has always kept a flame in his heart for Grethe, and he arranges to fly from London, where he's lived for years as a literature teacher, to Chicago to see what sparks can spark.
At first, Grethe is a bit shocked that Connor and David arrange to take the older Penny into their home; she was expecting (one can sense) a white infant, someone she could mother. But she soon warms to Penny, and Penny to her, to the point where Penny prefers to stay at Grethe's house rather than with her two highly agitated, trying-too-hard foster parents. When Mhambi arrives, Penny sees in him the father she has always been hoping will return to rescue her, which drives Connor and Daniel into a deeper hole of self-doubt and self-recrimination.
But not to fear -- we are not in the land of August: Osage County: people cross this ocean, not drown in it. While Connor accuses Grethe of betrayal, and Grethe defends herself by saying that life goes on, they are too closely bonded for this disagreement to rupture their relationship, and they reconcile as Grethe goes off to spend three weeks with Mhambi on her own test-run of a new life.
Penny, at first distant because afraid of risking any emotional attachment that may not last, eventually grows closer to Connor and David, and by play's end they are on the road to being a family. Mhambi, for his part, gets the woman he's always wanted, even if it is 35 years later than he expected.
While the play is earnest in its narrative of happiness won through emotional struggle, the honesty it aims for is undermined by a whole host of clichés (though it's not clear if these are in the writing itself or come from Dev Bondarin's direction). For example, as the gay couple aching to be parents, Connor and Daniel exhibit every tic of the "stage gay man" (like the "stage Irish" of the English theater): eye-rolls, hissy fits, a love of "The Golden Girls," even Connor's little gelled rooster-comb of a haircut. While fun to watch (Mr. Stalling and Mr. Emerson work well together onstage), it also makes one wonder how they ever passed the interviews with the case worker: they hardly seem settled enough in their skins to qualify as potential parents.
More irritating is the way Mr. Daigle employs the black characters as saviors of the white family, especially in the exotic otherness of the Nigerian Mhambi, a published (if minor) poet who speaks in perfected sentences and appears as the soul of grace (right down to his bow tie). Penny, too, plays this role for the white people around her, a body of still water that runs deep with insight and advice that brings Connor and Daniel to the senses they should have had going in to this venture.
A Home Across The Ocean is cleverly written, well-plotted, and performed with great skill (Ms. Bond is especially good), and if you like high fructose plays that end well, this is your cup of sugar. (Note: A few of the shows will have talkbacks about the perils and pleasures of adoption, as part of their mission to "raise awareness of the social issues presented in our work.")

Michael Bettencourt

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