By Stanford Friedman
Over the last 23 years, the prolific, Florida-based playwright Michael McKeever has written 25 full-length plays. The latest to make its Manhattan premiere is his 2016 drama, After. In some ways, it is similar to his 2015 heart breaker, Daniel’s Husband. They both center around two couples and one family relation who spend about an hour of stage time trying to come to terms with a large social issue, before a radically tragic event occurs, plunging them all into a final 30 minutes of despair. In Daniel’s Husband, a discourse on gay marriage transforms into a melodrama about the quality of life rights of a quadriplegic. In After, a debate over high school bullying takes a brutal leap that not only wrecks the lives of all involved, but essentially damns the act of parenting all together.
There is worrisome foreshadowing before a single word is spoken, thanks to scenic designer Brian Prather’s bone cold living room, where even the oriental rug is icy blue. A rack of hunting rifles is on display and a huge, mounted deer head stares out at the audience with pleading, glassy eyes. It belongs to Tate (Michael Frederic), the man of the house, a lifelong hunter who is also skilled in denial and withholding emotion. His wife, Julia (Mia Matthews), specializes in being frantic and unapologetic, but she’s not a big fan of taxidermy. “A beautiful young animal like that, displayed as some sort of trophy,” she says, ominously. And then, upping the chill factor, she points out that it is the same age as their son, Kyle.
Over the course of three scenes, entitled, “before,” “during” and “after,” Tate and Julia are visited by Alan and Connie (Bill Phillips and Denise Cormier), whose son, Matthew, was on the receiving end of a threatening text from Kyle. Julia’s sister, Val (Jolie Curtsinger), begrudgingly joins the group to play peace maker. Scene one delves into the harmfulness of bullying. Tate tries to brush off Kyle’s transgression (“When we were that age, we were stuffing kids into lockers.”) but Alan, who at first seems quiet and buttoned up, provides a shocking lesson on instinctual reactions to a threat, even a seemingly harmless one.
The second scene takes place several days later, with the three women back together in an attempt to reestablish friendships and boast about their maternal instincts. The no-nonsense Connie is sure she knows Matthew “better than he knows himself,” while Julia claims to be an effective disciplinarian. Then the phone rings and their worldviews are forever shattered. The final scene jumps ahead two years, revealing the long term damage of a single violent act. The strong ensemble cast especially dazzle in these last moments. Ms. Matthews takes Julia from high-gloss to hopelessly sapped. Mr. Frederic keeps Tate strong until he finally breaks, reduced to a flood of sobs. Ms. Cormier’s Connie alarmingly transforms from self-assured to beaten, and Mr. Phillips endows Alan with the tragic qualities of a seer who was heard but not believed. Director Joe Brancato offers some dynamic staging, often keeping the actors far apart to emphasize not only their emotional isolation, but the impossible distance between these parents and their fawns.
After – By Michael McKeever; directed by Joe Brancato.
WITH: Denise Cormier (Connie); Jolie Curtsinger (Val); Michael Frederic (Tate); Mia Matthews (Julia); and Bill Phillips (Alan).
Brian Prather, scenic design; Gregory Gale, costume design; Martin E. Vreeland, lighting design; William Neal, original music and sound design. Penguin Rep Theatre and InProximity Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St., 646-892-7999, www.59e59.org. Through Sunday, April 14. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.