Strong cast boosts ‘Im­age’

Los Angeles Times - - THE ARTS - By Mar­garet Gray cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Here’s a deal, L.A. the­aters: We’ll hap­pily watch all the liquored-up-dys­func­tional-fam­ily-re­u­nion dra­mas you care to stage, as long as you cast Anne Gee Byrd as the mother.

Byrd plays Carol, a re­cent widow, in Sa­muel D. Hunter’s “A Per­ma­nent Im­age,” which is open­ing Rogue Ma­chine Theatre’s eighth sea­son. As an as­trin­gent, tipsy ter­ma­gant, she’s so hi­lar­i­ous, ap­palling and en­dear­ing that she could carry the pro­duc­tion all by her­self.

Luck­ily, she doesn’t have to, be­cause Ned Mochel and Tra­cie Lock­wood are also on­stage, play­ing Carol’s adult chil­dren, Bo and Ally, who have re­turned to their child­hood home in Idaho for their fa­ther’s fu­neral.

Bo, a pho­to­jour­nal­ist, has been trav­el­ing the world, doc­u­ment­ing grisly atroc­i­ties. Ally lives just a few hours away but is con­sumed by her busi­ness and dis­in­te­grat­ing fam­ily.

Both sib­lings are prickly about their life choices and con­cerned about their mother’s re­ac­tion to be­reave­ment. Carol has re­dec­o­rated the house in a re­ally weird way and shot the neigh­bor’s dog with a BB gun. Although a sly smile be­lies her brusque de­meanor from time to time, she’s not a dot­ing mother.

“Just be­cause you went to col­lege doesn’t mean you’re a psy­chi­a­trist!” she sneers if Ally or Bo ven­tures an in­sight. When they revert to brawl­ing (won­der­fully choreographed by Mochel, who dou­bles as vi­o­lence designer), she sprays them with the hose. And, as both kids ner­vously re­mark, she’s drink­ing again. And how did their fa­ther die any­way? Was he even sick?

Hunter, an Obie-win­ning play­wright (for “A Bright New Boise,” which had its West Coast pre­miere at Rogue Ma­chine in 2012) and a 2014 MacArthur “Ge­nius” Fel­low, wrote “A Per­ma­nent Im­age” early in his ca­reer. It uses a trust­wor­thy mech­a­nism (the fam­ily re­u­nion) and a re­li­able fuel (al­co­hol) to power its es­ca­lat­ing face­offs and rev­e­la­tions.

Carol sloshes liquor into her glass un­til she’s drunk enough to blurt out some shock­ing news, then hands the be­wil­dered kids a box­ful of home movies, which turn out to fea­ture their dad, Martin (Mark L. Ta ylor), be­fore his death, grouch­ily ex­plain­ing the Big Bang to Carol’s off-cam­era prompts.

The kids re­main puz­zled by this ev­i­dence of their jan­i­tor fa­ther’s late-bloom­ing in­ter­est in the cos­mos. (“Af­ter all this time, sud­denly, the man has an in­ner life?”) And in fact Martin and Carol’s vague be­lief sys­tem doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it doesn’t mat­ter: The play’s en­gine car­ries it to a mov­ing and vis­ually ar­rest­ing con­clu­sion, with the help of Ni­cholas San­ti­ago’s video pro­jec­tions on David A. Mauer’s set.

If, as the adage has it, di­rect­ing is 90% cast­ing, then direc­tor John Per­rin Flynn gets an A right off the mark with this ex­cep­tional group, but his care is also ap­par­ent in the fluid block­ing and the nat­u­ral in­ter­ac­tions.

If it’s hard to look away from Byrd even for a sec­ond, Mochel and Lock­wood’s ex­pres­sions make it worth the ef­fort.

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