This is a little late, but I caught Pangdemonium's excellent production of Deanna Jent's Falling last week (June 2), and couldn't help comparing the various family-centred dramas they've managed to pull off with great aplomb over the past few years. David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole (2013), Nina Raine's Tribes (2015), even the musical Next To Normal (2013) – each of these productions ascended to heights much more rarefied than their stable of competent, if a little 'by the book', adaptations of off-Broadway/West End favourites.
I've been pondering over why this is the case, and I think part of it is their extraordinary attention to detail, down to the tiniest habits, of the things that form over the course of nuclear family life, knowing that the two hours they present to us must capture the unique lexicon that each family possesses, a lexicon of behaviour, gesture, language and ritual that is a fingerprint of that family, and that family alone, but somehow also reminds us of the fingerprint that is our own family. The family unit, in that sense, is a ready-made theatre ensemble. And when the Pangdemonium cast enters their living room, the set that represents their home, they inhabit it with such familiarity that one readily believes that they must have been living there their entire life. And it is on this bedrock, this foundation of familiarity that the play then develops and draws us in.
Something I've been especially fascinated by is that while the family dramas that Pangdemonium have selected usually focus on one particular family member (in Tribes, Thomas Pang's Billy, who is deaf, comes of age; in Falling, Andrew Marko's Josh, who is autistic, holds everyone in orbit around him; in Next To Normal, Sally Ann Triplett's Diana is the tinderbox, a mother struggling with bipolar disorder), their ensembles are often so well-orchestrated in their give and take that the 'lead' performers always allow the 'supporting' cast room to develop and articulate, and the 'supporting' cast rarely attempt to out-perform the 'leads'. I use quote marks to indicate that sometimes these roles are fluid; one character might dominate several scenes and then have a breather as others take their turn. In the same way, families are fraught with different struggles; it might be the daughter one day and the mother the next, an evolving dynamic as family members enter different stages of their lives.
In Falling, a family struggles with their 18-year-old autistic son who can be at turns affectionate and violently aggressive. It's a difficult, harrowing play – but it's also full of moments of levity, with well-timed, humorous entrances and exits that might even remind one of the rhythms of Moliere's French restoration comedy. Two characters might be shouting at each other for five minutes, voices coarse, then one leaves the room and returns, thirty seconds later, sheepish and apologetic. But that's family life, isn't it? It's love – punctuated by arguments, tears, grief, and laughter – but love all the same.