A more repulsive group of characters than the ones (literally) kicking up dirt onstage in Charlotte Miller’s Thieves would be hard to find. The mother of the family is dead – she’s the lucky one – but very much alive and kicking in this backwater Texas town are the fierce lesbian daughter with energy and hate to spare; her whiny dancer-wannabe sister, back from New York for the funeral; their whack-job brother, wearing an oxygen mask much of the time to stave off his asthma; and their hated long-absent father, whose first entrance consists of a minute or so of stuttering. Oh, and there’s the lesbian sister’s girlfriend, who might pull a gun on you, and dead Mom’s young male caretaker, with whom the lesbian has been sleeping. An evening spent in the company of this crowd is guaranteed to make one suicidal, homicidal, or both.
Not that they’re necessarily bad company for theatregoers. There’s enough action, plot twists, and intense acting here to keep an audience entertained for ninety minutes. Add to that good tech credits, and you could do worse than mosey into this family’s orbit.
We first see Jason (Chris Bellant), the caretaker, shirtless, bent over, and with his pants pulled far enough down that his butt crack is exposed. He offers a Coke to Lana (Sarah Shaefer), just arrived from New York and standing in the yard pensively smoking a cigarette. Before long, Lana’s hard-charging sister Lottie (Samantha Soule) rushes from the house, and it’s clear the women have a complex relationship: while they may hug each other in sisterly reunion, Sarah wastes no time interrogating Lottie as to why she didn’t tell her that their mother was dead. Lottie’s answer is… not satisfying.
That’s the least of the family’s problems, though. Daddy (John Wojda) has been missing in action for a long time, which may have been just as well, considering he was a heavy drinker and not the best father when he was there. Walter (MacLeod Andrews), Lana and Lottie’s brother and dead Mama’s favorite, is a ne’er-do-well who’s been away from home, and whom no one really knows how to contact until he shows up. And Lottie’s girlfriend Holly (Addie Johnson), who met Lottie when both were in the military, is angry about being forced back into the closet when she agreed to accompany Lottie to this primitive town to care for Mama – Holly has a hair-trigger temper, and unfortunately has access to a gun with which to indulge it.
The emotions start at fever pitch and stay there for much of the (short) play, with lots of screaming, accusations, recriminations, gnashing of teeth, and throwing of food and other props – I definitely wouldn’t want to be part of the cleanup crew, as food, liquids, and dirt go flying in all directions.
Thieves calls to mind previous emotionally-fraught southern/ western family sagas such as August: Osage County and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it’s as if the characters in those plays had taken steroids in order to join the cast of Thieves. While generally absorbing, the play varies wildly in tone. The characters are depicted as the ultimate in white trash – dinner is from KFC, wine is from a box (rosé no less!), the yard has no plants or flowers, just real red dirt – and the opening is so over-the-top that we’re hunkered down for a rollicking farce.
However, while there are indeed terribly funny moments, the play also frequently descends into an earnestness which can cross into the mawkish. Characters spout lines such as “We hurt each other,” “You’re my heart,” and “I feel as if I don’t have anyone at all” with no trace of irony. A cringe-worthy confessional ends with one character begging another to “Tell me I’m worthless.” While there’s nothing wrong with earnestness, a little goes a long way, and some judicious cutting would make the serious bits balance more with the satire.
The energetic production directed by Daniel Talbott, and fine performances by the cast, help push past the awkward moments, and the scenic design by Deb O, costume design by Tristan Raines, lighting design by Kia Rogers, projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras, and sound design by Jake Rodriguez all make valuable contributions. One cavil re the sound, though: at times, the radio is so loud, while actors are shouting lines from offstage and over each other that we simply lose what’s being said. Fight director Mike Mahaffey had his hands full with this one, and acquits himself well.
A warning: there’s a lot of cigarette smoking, and the smoke permeates the theatre. If you’re allergic, this isn’t the show for you.
Written by Charlotte Miller
Directed by Daniel Talbott
Through April 4
Monroe Forum Theatre at the El Portal
5269 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tickets: 818-508-4200 or www.elportaltheatre.com