The Ties That Strangle

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Family is a funny thing—especially in Joel Drake Johnson’s The Fall to Earth at 59E59 Theaters.
Estranged mother and daughter Fay (Deborah Hedwall) and Rachel (Jolie
Curtsinger) fractiously reunite to complete a gruesome task: identify and bring home
the body of Kenny, their son and brother.

Things immediately get off to a rocky start when Fay and
Rachel discover that they have only one large bed in their motel room, and not
the two Rachel was so sure she ordered. “We can share!” Fay says
enthusiastically—and firmly. As she does for so much of the antsy, twitchy
first scene, Rachel reluctantly agrees.

Johnson and director Joe Brancato amp up the awkwardness in
the second scene, when Fay and Rachel go to the police station. There, officer
Terry (Amelia Campbell) is appalled at how Rachel sees her mother, and Fay
grows progressively unhinged—a feat, considering she had an entire conversation
with herself earlier in the play.

The tone of encroaching dread with which Brancato infused
the play’s first two-thirds can’t be sustained, however, and disappears
completely in the final confrontation among the three women back in the motel
room. And along with the lingering mysteries that Johnson over-explains, our
sense of empathy is lost.

Hedwall is both the play’s secret weapon and its built-in
destruct button. Her carefully controlled demeanor beings cracking in the first
scene, but Hedwall gives up all attempts at subtlety in the last 10 minutes;
she turns the dial up to 10 and leaves it there. She screeches, she pinches and
she gets physically aggressive—all of which makes Rachel’s ambivalence about
sharing a bed with Fay suddenly seem like mere self-preservation. Neither
Curtsinger nor Campbell are at Hedwall’s level, but then, their roles aren’t as
layered. Injured daughter and sympathetic cop just don’t offer up as many
opportunities as grieving mother.

Until Johnson pushes his story into an extra-special Oprah
episode in its closing moments, he’s given audiences a prickly, discomfiting
look at the ways family can let you down—and the times when it might be best to
cut your losses. Too bad Johnson’s climax lets his characters down, too.

The Fall to Earth

Through Feb. 5, 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. (betw. Park
& Madison Aves.),; $35.