In contemporary Northern California, the middle-class Hodge family has gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving. The cancer stricken Gerald and his wife Jean are in their mid-sixties. Their two daughters Katherine (Kate) and Cecelia (Ceeci) are in their thirties. Their son John is in his early twenties. The pregnant Katherine’s husband Patrick is in his thirties and they have a infant daughter whose crying is frequently heard. Cecelia’s recent boyfriend Derek is also in his thirties.
In the first fifteen minutes of the play it is learned that Tommy, another son and sibling, was a public defender and was violently murdered by a client six years ago. On Monday, the convicted killer is to be sentenced and the Hodge family intends to appear in court to make their statements to the judge to influence her decision. Conflicts develop as not all of the Hodges wish to see the maximum sentence handed down.
Morgan McGuire takes this dramatically fertile collective anguish and has written a play that is uneven. The characters are all very well defined and the expertly shaped dialogue is realistic. However, Ms. McGuire employs distracting stylistic devices.
Overlapping dialogue in occasional scenes in a Robert Altman film is exciting but this play has so many instances of it that this becomes tedious and self-conscious. McGuire puts in a few Ibsenesque plot twists that are effective but doesn’t emulate Ibsen’s simplicity. Pulsing music and lighting effects accompany scene transitions and several dramatic portions. There’s lot of sound effects including the crying baby. The realism and potency of the play are diluted by these intrusions.
Scenic designer Chris Bowser’s excellent expressionistic set is without walls and depicts the minutely detailed furnishings of the house. It’s on a raised platform, the space underneath visible, the walls of the theater surrounding it are covered with white sheets of paper with handwriting, symbolic of the family’s court statements. Aesthetically it’s all accomplished but reinforces the preoccupation with stylization.
As does Joe Cantalupo’s lighting design with its perpetual red hues and Aidan Meyer’s sound design with its jarring tones. The costumes by designer Heather McDevitt Barton are a simple assortment of garments that suit the characters.
Director Jenny Beth Snyder fulfills the author’s vision with her fast-paced and solid staging. Ms. Snyder also has achieved fine performances from the large cast.
As the older sister Kate, who is the most vehement for retribution, Meghan E. Jones gives a relentless and fearless performance. Ms. Jones totally embraces the character’s tremendous fierceness and is unconcerned with likability. Jones is like a combative combination of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with flashes of Jack Torrance from The Shining.
The sleek and appealing Jessica O’Hara Baker is animated and intense as Ceeci and is a great foil for Ms. Jones during their explosive exchanges.
Michael Kingsbaker and Rob Brinkmann are both engagingly low-key as the sisters’ significant others and both have their well-modulated outbursts of temper.
John DiMino as John offers a winning portrait of jaunty youthful behavior mixed with the rage and resentment especially during an emotional breakdown.
Thomas F. Walsh and Sheila Stasack are parentally convincing as Mr. and Mrs. Hodge and succeed at their wrenching expressions of grief.
Providing light comic relief is Orisa Henderson as Melissa, a young Deputy District Attorney who visits to coordinate and prepare them for the court appearance. Ms. Henderson marvelously conveys sympathy and also the steeliness of a prosecutor with an agenda by her expressive facial features and eyes, and charming speech pattern.
The theater company The Shelter presents this premiere production of The Red Room. The final third of it contains a riveting, raw and operatic denouement that somewhat transcends the rest of its extraneous pretensions.
The Red Room (through July 30, 2016)
The Shelter at TGB Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.theshelternyc.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission