There are times in every family when the reality of years of denial breaks through the psychological defenses of family members to reveal the emotional pain that has been concealed. For some, the breakthrough gives a sense of liberation and personal healing; for others, it is a crushing blow that may never be fixed.
This G*d Damn House by Matthew McLachlan is a story of two brothers tasked with helping their mother leave their childhood home after the bank foreclosed on it. It appears that she has not made a mortgage payment in six months, a fact concealed from both brothers. They encounter a house full of the detritus of a life lived in a psychological maelstrom of deception, confusion, and denial. The brothers discover some of their memories hidden in the piles of stuff littering the house.
The play opens with a living room filled with piles of clothing, books, papers, garbage bags, and trash. Two men enter the room. They are brothers Danny (Gabriel Rysdahl) and Jacob (Kirk Gostkowski), and they are at the home of their mother, Angie (Sachi Parker), to pack it up. The brothers have not seen each other for some years since Danny moved to New York City. Jacob stayed in Florida and has been visiting his mom regularly since she and his dad divorced many years ago.
Danny is appalled at the house’s condition and wonders how Jacob did not know that their mom had not been making the mortgage payments. Jacob said their mom indicated everything was okay, so he didn’t push for details. Danny reacts by reminding Jacob that their mom cannot be trusted. Jacob is four or five years older than Danny. He was not around the house after his parents divorced, so he was not fully aware of what was happening between Danny and their mother. In the course of the cleaning and packing, the complicated history of the family is revealed.
Danny tells of their mother’s behavior towards him, how she would lie, and how she was emotionally abusive. That behavior led Danny to escape to New York City to pursue his acting and writing career. Jacob stayed in Florida, working successfully as an actor, during which he married a fellow performer. After the marriage, he gave up acting and became a wedding photographer. He was now on the verge of becoming a father. After Danny left, Jacob became more involved with his mother, ultimately visiting her once a week.
As the brothers go through the stuff in the house, they discover items that remind them of their childhood and the things they did apart and together. It is in these interactions that their relationship with their mother begins to be revealed. Rysdahl and Gostkowski give solid performances as they reveal the long-hidden emotional scars of the brothers. Parker, as their mother, Angie, a former school teacher, adds dimension to those performances by providing telling aspects of Angie’s character to the narrative in ways that may or may not be relevant to the memories of her sons.
Into this emotionally dysfunctional mix comes Hannah (Rica de Ocampo), a young woman in her early twenties. She has come to help with the packing. She worked with Angie as a teaching assistant for a few years, but it turns out that her involvement with Angie was much more than simply one of work. Hannah spent time at Angie’s house as a young girl to escape her abusive mother. This revelation is a seminal moment for Danny because of his problematic time living with his mother.
In Act II, Jacob’s wife, Allie (Christina Perry), becomes the catalyst that drives the story to the end. The interaction between Angie and Allie lays bare how Angie has controlled her sons with emotional manipulation and deceit, first with Danny until he left and then with Jacob, ultimately getting Jacob to give up acting so he would stay close to her in Florida. What transpires between Angie and Allie profoundly affects Jacob when he discovers what has happened, leading to a pivotal moment in the play when Jacob’s true feelings are revealed. The play ends with an interesting coda delivered in a scene between Danny and his mother, and it is unexpected, revealing, and beautifully presented.
The direction by Ella Jane New delivers this emotionally complex story with skill and sensitivity. There are only a few instances when the action doesn’t entirely ring true, such as the opening scene when the brothers first enter the house. Gostkowski’s presentation is somewhat distracted as if he is looking for the character’s voice. Rysdahl is more in tune with his character at this early stage but is also somewhat flat in affect. They may be trying to bring out the awkwardness of two brothers trying to find their emotional footing with each other after a number of years apart. They find their footing as Act I progresses and deliver fine performances.
The scenic design by David Henderson is spot-on, with the orchestrated chaos of junk in the house of a compulsive hoarder. I feel for the crew having to recreate the chaos of that house in preparation for the next performance. Of course, everything has its place on the set, but how do you know which garbage bag goes back to where it was at the beginning of Act I? The lighting design by Michael Abrams and the sound design by Greg Russ effectively define the shifts in action. De Ocampo, who plays Hannah, is also the costume designer, two jobs she does effectively.
This G*d Damn House (through April 8, 2023)
Chain Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 917-261-2446 or visit http://www.chaintheatre.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission