Nothing roils a fractured family like the serious illness of a lousy parent whom none of his offspring much likes. Few events in life, or death, spark more fights and pain.
We never see the man whose demise — he ails, then he dies — causes the turmoil recounted in Melissa Ross' "Thinner Than Water," an unstinting, sometimes funny, yet pervasively melancholy play that focuses on three struggling adult siblings, each the product of different mothers, but each also baring the lifelong mark of the same lousy dad. But Ross, a writer associated with the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York whose work is a fine match for the tiny, relentless Gift Theatre of Jefferson Park, certainly shows us the dilemma that afflicts kids whose time down the rabbit hole of hospitals, illness and grief is tempered, or ignited, by residual anger at the one for whom they must care.
Ross is in the familiar territory of familial dysfunction with this play, which kept putting me in mind of the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie "The Savages," a rather similar piece about what happens to siblings when a parent fails. Aside from the group of very unglamorized Chicago actors whose tears fall just a few feet from your head, what makes "Thinner Than Water" so compelling is the unflagging accuracy of the many confrontations that make up its story. You will, I think, recognize the timing and content of these fights.
There's the one in the hospital waiting room between the eldest child, Renee (played, with a fine embrace of ugliness and vulnerability, by Lynda Newton), and the dad's last, meek girlfriend, Gwen (Donna McGough), the only person who actually likes the sick man and who is nearly swallowed whole by the raging emotions of the siblings who constitute his blood relatives and a history of which this poor woman has little or no idea.
Since Renee brandishes her sense of responsibility like a weapon against her pathetic half-sibs, there is also the why-don't-you-get-it-together fight with her younger brother Gary (Michael Patrick Thornton), a child-man who still works in a comic book store.
"I'm up for a promotion," he declares, after Renee attacks him. "Do you get a new superpower?" is her withering retort, crumpling what little self-esteem Gary has left.
The third sib in the show is Cassie (Brittany Burch), a lethargic, whiny young woman who can't commit to anything or anyone. In Ross' best scene in the play, a lover in need (played here by Jay Worthington) shows up on the doorstep of his ex not really knowing what he wants, probably nothing beyond this moment, sending his anguished former partner into her own maelstrom of affection versus self-protection. Worthington and Burch make you wince at every word.
Similarly recognizable are the battles between Newton's Renee and her husband, Mark, played by Paul D'Addario as a guy who wants nothing more than to keep out of the way of this poisonous family dynamic, not that he really has that chance. Once you marry into this stuff, there you are, folks.
Rain falls throughout John Gawlik's honestly directed and shrewdly cast production, which has (or so it seemed from Joe Schermoly's emotional landscape of a set) moved the setting of the play from New York to the soggy streets of ordinary Chicago. At one point during Monday night's opening, an actor's coffee drink sprang an unintended leak, which seemed to fit perfectly, given that it was immediately followed by the intentional effect of water falling through Renee's roof.
"Thinner Than Water" does have notes of hope, manifest mostly through Gary's flailing attempts to volunteer as a Big Brother to the kid of a wary woman named Angela (Darci Nalepa). Those scenes, which could use some dialing back, feel a bit more contrived and less au fait than ideal with the unstinting truth of almost everything else you can see in this Milwaukee Avenue theater.
But to her great credit, in the last few minutes Ross first makes you think she is going to reconcile all these lives, cable-drama style, only to throw us a loop. Whether it's a sunny interval or just a continuation of the downpour of life remains an open question, one that the people of Gift seem determined to explore.
When: Through May 25
Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $20-$35 at 773-283-7071 or thegifttheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun