By Stanford Friedman
There are three somber individuals in Munich Medea: Happy Family, the first play written by actor/director Corinne Jaber. They never speak directly to each other. They never touch. Indeed, each stakes out a section of the stage and stays caged within it for most of the drama’s absorbing 75 minutes. Two of the characters are best friends and the third is the father to one of them. So why all the avoidance? Because, as we learn through a series of interwoven monologues, the trio’s shared past is full of very wrong and very damaging closeness from which the friends have never fully recovered.
Alice (Heather Raffo) has the same, very specific demographic profile as the playwright: a Syrian-German born in Germany and raised in both Germany and Canada. This leaves the audience a bit on edge, silently hoping that Jaber’s writing is not strict autobiography. As an 11-year-old, Alice met a middle-aged man (Kurt Rhodes) who would groom and sexually abuse her by the time she turned 16. At first, it was thrilling for her. They would leave coded messages for each other and she welcomed the attention that her distant parents were failing to provide. Later, she would come to see the abuse for what it was: “He was greedy. Used to having what he wanted. Like a spoilt child. But I was the child.” Raffo, her eyes full of suppressed rage, brings a survivor’s dignity to the part, as effective with her silences as with her testimony.
Caroline (Crystal Finn) is the man’s daughter, Alice’s childhood friend, and a chilling example of willful ignorance. Herself a victim of her father’s abuse, and cursed with a mother who has completely dissociated, she longs to be part of a “happy family” though the best she can conjure is one with “things left unsaid, silences kept when one should scream.” Finn keenly balances Caroline’s complex relationship to Alice; a brutal mix of admiration and jealousy, love and hate, causing her, at one point, to resentfully declare, “She was mine and not his.”
The man, creepily referred to only as Father, is an actor by profession, making him an appealing mystery to the impressionable, young Alice. At a Munich theater he portrays the role of Jason in Medea. Offstage, he shares that mythic figure’s villainy, and hatred of his own marriage. But Father does not suffer the tragic consequences of his actions as Euripides would have demanded. Skillfully and hauntingly played by Rhodes, this predator pays no penalty and has little if any remorse for his obsessions.
Rarely do the benefits of a play written in monologues outweigh the risks of having no character interaction, but nourished by Jaber’s sharp writing and Lee Sunday Evans’ sensitive direction, this production makes the most out of isolating its players. It serves to effectively express the loneliness that comes with the keeping of secrets, the loss of trust and the pain of victimization. The two women exist in a hazy kind of twilight zone, simultaneously in Munich and not. It extends back to their childhood and forward into their 30’s, without them ever assuming the childlike mannerisms of their lost youth. Father, meanwhile, does age, growing elderly but not repentant, peacefully lamenting, “The past is nowhere to be found.”
Kristen Robinson’s split-level scenic design is fittingly dour. Alice and Caroline occupy corners of the stage that are as dark and spare as any bad memory one would wish to forget. Father, meanwhile, prowls an upper floor, always lording over his prey. Half of his real estate is the dressing room where he escapes into the regal characters he portrays.The other half is a walled-off bedroom where he hides the evidence of his true and vulgar self.
Munich Medea: Happy Family – By Corinne Jaber; directed by Lee Sunday Evans.
WITH: Crystal Finn (Caroline), Heather Raffo (Alice) and Kurt Rhodes (Father).
Kristen Robinson (Scenic Design), Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (Lighting Design), Dina El-Aziz (Costume Design), UptownWorks/Daniela Hart, Noel Nichols, Bailey Trierweiler (Sound Design), and Skylar Fox (Magic Design). PlayCo and WP Theater at WP Theater, 4th Fl., 2162 Broadway. 929- 458-0636, https://wptheater.org/tickets/. Through February 25. Running time: 75 minutes.