By Patrick Hurley
Rogue Machine Theatre kicks off their eighth season with the west coast premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s A Permanent Image, playing now through July 20. The play tells the story of a small estranged family reuniting for a funeral on Christmas Eve. The story follows Carol (Anne Gee Byrd) whose husband Martin (Mark L. Taylor) has died, and whose two children Bo (Ned Mochel) and Ally (Tracie Lockwood) have returned home for the funeral. The dysfunction of the family starts to show itself almost immediately, and what ensues is evocative and maybe more recognizable than is comfortable, with a few twists here and there.
Bo is a successful journalist whose job takes him all over the world photographing atrocities and injustices. Ally is a republican-lesbian-entrepreneur who repeatedly defends her distant relationship with her family with the line “I’m a business-owner.” At the start of the play Bo arrives back to his childhood home on Christmas Eve only to discover that his recently widowed mother has painted everything inside of it white. The walls, the furniture, the pictures, everything is white. Bo questions his mother’s sanity, probably rightly so. Carol insists that she is handling the death of Martin just fine. She drinks alot, she’s painted everything white, but she keeps insisting. When Ally arrives the three of them have long discussions about Martin, about Carol’s drinking, and about their dwindling relationships with each other. Ally, who seems to be the numbest about Martin’s death, wants to know how he died, so that she can feel it. Carol responds with “he was breathing, and then he wasn’t.” a sentiment that gets repeated throughout the evening, as a reminder of the brevity of life. It is a meditation on impermanence. That all of life is one thing, and then it simply is something else. It even explores the big bang theory in order to make this beautifully existential point. That even something as seemingly permanent as the universe, started as one thing, and ended up as another. Everything changes.
The first act of the play moves smoothly, raising questions, placing stakes, developing tension between the three characters, who are all trying to find meaning behind in life. Death is a great catalyst for the search for greater truth and meaning, and this play dives right in. The first act, however, ends with a dramatic twist that changes the course of the play. Act Two, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the stakes that the end of Act One lay before us, and we are left with a somewhat unbelievable and unearned ending. Samuel D. Hunter is a master with language. His characters verbal ticks are always fascinating. For instance, Carol is always making points by throwing in the word “whatever,” as a noncommittal tag on the end of sentences, and it is so completely incorporated into the style of her language that it makes her sound more authentic somehow. Mr. Hunter places an interesting philosophical question before us, but expects too much out of us in too short a time. The major dramatic question of this play changes midway through the play, and that requires a readjustment, and it is in that readjustment where this play falls a little short. The grand philosophical ideas that are presented are dramatically interesting, and the questions are valid and sincere, but too often the play leans on sentimentality. It goes for an easier answer than it should, particularly given the gravity of this subject (no spoilers here!).
Director John Perrin Flynn does quite a wonderful job with the small space. The use of projections both pre-show and during the performance are wonderfully inventive and poignant. Particularly the final one, where the overlap from past and present merge together. It was really clever.
The cast also does a great job. Anne Gee Byrd, in particular, gives a wonderful performance. She is headstrong and hilarious, sad and empowered. She stands her ground and holds onto a self assuredness that is fun to watch deflate as she knocks back cheap liquor. Ms. Byrd humanizes her by allowing her flaws to always ride the surface of her demeanor. She is a bevy of contradictions. Likewise, Tracie Lockwood is excellent as Ally. She also plays with the dimensions of her character in such a way that it’s fascinating to see her move from one aspect of Ally to the next. Her anger gives way to sadness in the blink of an eye, but she is so convincing that it is always a well-earned transition. Ned Mochel holds his own as Bo. He is given less to do from the playwright than the women, but he digs in and discovers the small moments of honesty, and he frequently makes less than obvious choices which gives Bo an air of genuineness. Together this trio works really well together, and their chemistry feels authentically and wonderfully dysfunctional.
In the end, this is a very intriguing, and eye-opening story that introduces us to a world of dark humor and big philosophical ideas, and leaves us wanting a little bit more than we get from it. It’s all tied up a little too easily, and a little too quickly. The weight of what these characters are actually dealing with deserves a bigger, more substantial conclusion.
A Permanent Image
By Samuel D. Hunter
Opens at 5pm on June 6th and runs at 5pm Saturdays, 7pm Sundays, and 8pm Mondays through July 20, 2015 (no performances on 6/22 or 7/4).
ROGUE MACHINE is located at 5041 W. Pico Blvd., LA, CA 90019. Tickets are $30 – $35 and can be reserved at 855-585-5185 or at http://www.roguemachinetheatre.com