Review: Thunder & Lightning’s “Home Front”

 Triteness Wars Against Tragedy in “Home Front”

Thunder & Lighting Ensemble presents:

Home Front

by James Duff
directed by Jimmy Binns
thru November 15th (ticket info)

Review by Paige Listerud

lightning_treeOne of the charming things about theater in Chicago is that, sometimes, notices of openings come from surprising places. We received news of Thunder & Lightning Ensemble’s production Home Front from somebody’s parents. We’re grateful for the alert. Rarely do we see a play about the cost of war to families in the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, let alone a play that explored it long before it received recognition from our government or military. James Duff’s work seems American Primitive in its melodrama. But its power to reflect grinding family minutiae and its propensity to mask more devastating issues is scary in its accuracy.

All the more reason to handle Duff’s dialogue with care, especially since talking about the peanut brittle is sometimes not about the peanut brittle. It’s 1973. Jeremy (Mike Steele), the son of Bob (Marc Kelly Smith) and Maureen (Joan Merlo) and little brother to Karen (Kimberly Logan), is back from the war in Vietnam. As if holidays aren’t brutal enough–how will they get through Thanksgiving when Vietnam is the elephant in the room?

This production is worth seeing for Marc Smith ’s performance alone. His portrayal of this family’s baffled and embattled patriarch never hits a wrong note. We might even believe he lives here and refrain from sitting in his chair. Mike Steele’s Jeremy provides electricity in his increasingly dangerous outbursts. Joan Merlo’s suburban housewife Maureen shows genuine, folksy depth, from her needling attempts to nag her children back to church to her frustrated pleas to be respected beyond household servitude. Yet Merlo, no less than Logan, must beware of devolving into caricature. Logan’s performance in particular has to show more range beyond being a stereotypically peevish sibling or her role succumbs to two-dimensionality.

Kurt Bradenstein’s set design makes the most of EP Theater’s stage and is, in many ways, absolutely appropriate–its efficient use of cramped space emphasizes Home Front’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Here every bit of direction becomes magnified. Unfortunately, director Jimmy Binns informs the actors with only limited and utilitarian range of movement. The blocking is perfunctory and does little to enhance the dramatic value of each deceptively insignificant moment.

It’s too bad, because this capable cast could tease out more nuances from typically stock characters. Maureen may be the dutiful wife and mother, but she also has a stinger in her tale that could be whipped out with more flourish before it disappears beneath her housewifely frumpiness. Karen’s whiny demeanor should not conceal the love she feels for her brother, frustrated all the more when he denies her attempts to re-establish lost camaraderie.

Family life is a tangled web, woven by years of self-deception and the acceptance of consensus fictions that hold the family together. No need to blame it all on Nam, man. With Jeremy, Karen, and Maureen all threatening to leave, Vietnam may only be the final lie that rips it all wide open. Now all this production needs to do is delineate that web for the audience in all its hideous glory.

Rating: ★★

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