Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
Running Time: Two and a half hours includes a ten minute intermission
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
A drunk deserts his family after trying to set the house on fire. How does the wife handle it? Pretends he’s dead. What happens when he returns home after ten years? She lets him stay, ignores him and refers to him as ‘the man you call dad.’ Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS. Nora is the matriarch of a dysfunctional family. Her prodigal husband has resurfaced with dementia. Her daughter Mary Ann is a crazy runaway mother. Her son-in-law Junior is a beat-up car thief or drug dealer. Her daughter Elizabeth is a hot-tempered bull bi-sexual. There are cops in her kitchen and drugs and thugs in her basement. How does she cope? With a cup of tea, cock-eyed optimism and a firm grasp on fantasy. ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS is an eccentric family struggling to find their bliss through atonement or make believe. It’s a total trip to the funny house!
‘The women in this house are spooky.’ In ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS, the women do rule the home and stage with hilarity. Jeff Award Winner Nancy Friedrich (Mary Ann) once again dominates in a supporting role. Mary Ann uses cooking and therapy induced revelations about her sister to avoid reality. Friedrich delivers her nonsensical lines with a distinct diction and foggy presence. She is the perfect punch line to Jennifer Matthews (Elizabeth) overbearing, irrational intensity. The combination of certified-able crazy and situation induced insanity makes Friedrich-Matthews exploit the comedy in opposite directions. As the normal sister, Whitney Hayes (Gail) is the Lisa- in-“The Simpsons” character. She anchors the family with an understated strength and compassion for irregularity. The sisters’ catfight, choreographed by Geoff Coates, is an amusing, authentic hair-pulling flashback. Barbara Anderson (Nora) holds court with lunacy inspired advice. Whether she’s encouraging ‘dancing off’ internal injuries or lecturing her daughters during a gun confrontation, Anderson brings a wonderful “Arsenic and Old Lace” vagueness to her lunacy.
Under the direction of Genevieve Thompson, the entire cast goes the distance pursuing the humor for the audience’s happiness. A frantic search for scotch is a cupboard slamming, Tupperware throwing, hot mess. The kitchen designed by Kathy Arfken has classic homey details right down to the pantry and screen door. Playwright George F. Walker has created intriguing characters driving his dark comedy plot twists. The script gets bogged down with eloquent but preachy exposition. Crisper dialogue and tighter scenes would be the catalyst to make ESCAPE FROM HAPPINESS run away to success.
Preparing for summer visits from her relations, Jasleen describes the show with “nutjob family drama” and adds a little nod out to Chris Mahler.
WAITING FOR THE SHOW
Having lunched late, Jasleen and I opt out on dinner and go for an alternative preshow drink in Andersonville. Difficulty finding street parking leads us to Calo’s, 5343 N.Clark. Besides being a neighborhood staple with consistent food and reasonable prices, Calo’s has a free parking lot. The Italian restaurant is bustling at 7:30 as the older early birds exit and the younger night owls arrive. We avoid the wait and secure two stools at the bar. Sipping a nice Malbec, we discuss our lunatic ‘work family’ drama. ‘Nora’ told ‘Mary Ann’ that people were complaining that she spent too much time on Facebook at work. ‘Mary Ann’s’ response was to defriend just ‘Gail’, ‘Elizabeth’, and ‘Junior’ and to pretend she excluded the entire office. ‘Mary Ann’ doesn’t know there is no escape from Facebook connections. It’s bizarre but art imitates life, life imitates art and facebook puts all that craziness out there for the whole world to see.