5th Wall’s ‘Unexpected Tenderness’ is expectedly polished
The 5th Wall Theater Company has joined forces with Chamberlayne Actor’s Theater to produce a joint entry into this year’s Acts of Faith Theater festival. Crossing religious and cultural lines, the festival provides Richmond with a venue for ecumenical conversations about faith and theatre while helping Richmond’s dynamic and diverse theatre community reach new audiences in a meaningful way.
The joint entry from these two companies is Israel Horovitz’ disturbing, semi-autobiographical play Unexpected Tenderness. The story, set in the kitchen sink reality of 1952 New England, focuses on the abuse one family endures at the hands of the father/husband/son, Archie.
The abuse is both physical and psychological. Violently repressive to the women in his household, Archie, is played by the excellent Fred Iocova, who also plays Roddy, the grown-up son. As the older Roddy, he is able to narrate the story from a safe distance and create something of a safe distance for us too. Tracing the abuse back through generations of men in his family, the play does not offer Archie redemption but rather provides a vehicle for future generations to break the cycle of abuse.
Throughout the play young Rodney is preparing a speech for a competition based on Franklin Roosevelt’s quote “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself,” and, tracking the progression of the play, he refines his speech to express the sentiment that fear, in this case of his father, is the most debilitating emotion there is.
The trauma onstage is made more dramatically bearable by the tough-yet-tender actress Eva DeVirgilis as Archie’s wife and the main target of his torture. Enduring and sometimes enabling in her flimsy bathrobe, Ms. DeVirgilis delicately navigates the fine line between vulnerability and defiance. A lesser actress would not have found so many colors of her character to justify the alternating frenzy of passion and fear of her husband that she endures.
Meanwhile, Mr. Iocova’s portrayal of the jealous, predatory Archie is nearly unbearable. At turns out of control with rage and then weeping like a child at his inability to control himself, Mr. Iocova engenders enough sympathy to almost make the audience complicit in his acts. This sympathy is what wins Archie the “unexpected tenderness” from the very people he abuses, and in the end, the audience as well.
As the two children, Nick Dauley and Tori Eriavez work hard to stay in lockstep with their more experienced cast-mates. As young Roddy, Mr. Dauley gives his character a disarming intelligence which, as the narrator works well. At times, however, it works against him by making him seem detached from the violence. Although the action focuses on his father, this is young Roddy’s story, we want him to escape the cycle of violence that the men of his family have passed down through the generations. We should feel the most sympathetic to his victimization in order to be redeemed by his escape from it.
As the paternal grandparents, Linda Beringer and William Blair are delightful – very funny and frightening by turns. Ms. Beringer also captures the elusive art of self-delusion, as Archie’s rationalizing mother. Just as victimized but less defiant, she gives in more readily to sustain the only peace she knows is possible.
Unexpected Tenderness also features Dean Knight as Archie’s co-worker who takes on a greater importance in the family drama than we are led to expect. Transforming himself into the scariest type of uneducated man, Mr. Knight serves as the fulfillment of Archie’s worst fears.
Two outstanding contributions were the consistently fine dialects, coached by the talented Thomas Cunningham and the incidental score, arranged by Stephen Ryan.
The Massachusetts dialects were spot on and maintained with consistency. Ms. Beringer also gave us a very nice Russian (Yiddish?) accent.
Mr. Ryan gave us a lush classically infused score which ranged at the opening curtain with the melodic strains of Boccherini’s string quintet, Op. 13 (ironically counter shadowing the blue collar Jewish family of turmoil and abuse to follow) and Shubert’s piano trio D898 underscoring the truck ride to “How Much is That Doggy in the Window” (serving as ironic contrast to the single moment of poignancy between father and son). A rare treat to be so majestically serenaded by so thoughtful a score during a Richmond theater experience.
The set design by Eric Kinder was well done but rather ordinary. I wished for the set to mimic the tension on stage heightening the clash of wills, with contradictory patterns and jutting angles. The prim blue collar costumes designed by Sheila Russ put a cheerful mask of domestic tranquility on the story. The lighting design by K. Jenna Ferree served its purpose but again gave us no extraordinary transitions or character shadings.
I will also take issue with two technical shortcomings on opening night. Ms. DeVirgilis’ bruise makeup was unconvincing and a little glaring. Lastly, the stage combat in the form of slap punches (where the actor slaps his own hand as the victim’s head moves) was much too obvious and inexact.
Director Bill Patton’s most astonishing feat may be in successfully avoiding melodrama in this deeply troubled household, and pacing the events to prevent easy conclusions one is bound to make when one sees domestic violence. Fine rhythms and multi-faceted characterizations add interest and even humor to the subject matter.
This 100 minute show is admirably complex, with a director and cast that are fully up to the challenge.
It more largely illuminates how hard it can be to forge both a satisfying career and a fulfilling personal life in an era that seems to demand superhuman achievement from everyone.September 19, 2016
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