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“Leaving Home” – Ruskin Group Theatre Play Has Hits & Misses:

“Kitchen sink realism,” a style of theatre, as well as other art forms, popularized in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, illuminated the domestic challenges of every-day living of the working class. David French’s “Leaving Home” clearly falls into that genre as it explores the dynamics of a particular dysfunctional family.

The story revolves around the Mercers, a family that moved from Newfoundland to mainland Canada and settled in what is clearly a working class neighborhood, as represented by Cliff Wagner’s excellent set, which utilizes the limited space extremely well.

The family consists of Jacob, the explosive dad, brilliantly played by Chris Mulkey, and his long-suffering wife Mary, also brilliantly played by Karen Landry. Rounding out the family are their two sons, Billy (James Lastovic) and Ben (Kayde McMullen).

Mary is nervously setting the table for a rehearsal dinner in honor of Billy’s impending marriage to Kathy (Sierra Barter). There is tension in the air as she admonishes her sons to not upset their father, who can spin out of control in a split second.

Jacob arrives home from work in a good mood, sings a song to Mary, takes her in his arms and does a little dance to music designed by Chip Bolcik.

In short order, Jacob becomes a raging bull, with his tirade directed at his older son Ben.

This son has just graduated from high school but avoided inviting his dad to the ceremony because of his fear that he would be disruptive. He and his dad do not get along, with dad sometimes taking the strap to him. He is moving out and plans to rent a room in Billy and Kathy’s home but at his mother’s behest, has not told his father yet. At the same time, the impending nuptials are what we would refer to as a “shotgun wedding” as it seems Kathy is pregnant with Billy’s child.

Jacob is extremely unhappy about the marriage as Kathy is Catholic and Billy is going to convert – an action that Jacob finds reprehensible because of his terrible childhood memories of violence against non-Catholics. He decides to not go to church that evening for the rehearsal, which brings some relief to his wife who, likewise, is worried about his behavior, and is always running interference between her husband a her sons.

Anyone who has ever known an alcoholic will painfully recognize Jacob’s unpredictable mood swings, powerfully portrayed by Mulkey in what is a spellbinding performance. He fully captures the mercurial temper tantrums of his explosive character and the tension in that home is palpable. His entire performance is rife with a resounding subtext that communicates as loudly as the text. Because of his erratic behavior, the family tries to walk around on eggshells, but in this case, those eggshells are cracking as Ben lashes out at his father, despite the possible physical consequences.

The soon the bride-to-be enters with a sad face and we know something has happened. She has had a miscarriage and very reluctantly shares that news with Billy, who instantly sees his way out of the marriage commitment because he really feels he too young to get married. He asks Kathy to postpone the nuptials until he finishes school. She is not happy about it.

Kathy’s mom Minnie, brought to life by Mary Carrig, is a flamboyant character whose high energy brings some relief from the charged atmosphere in the Mercer home. Her escort is Harold (Chip Bolcik), a gentleman of few words. In fact, he speaks no words as his character has no dialogue, but is actually on the verge of stealing the show with his almost comatose demeanor – a welcomed, comic distraction from all the histrionics emanating from the stage.

Minnie and Jacob have a romantic history and she makes no bones about showing it in a sexy dance around the small kitchen. In short order, Kathy announces to everyone that she’s lost the baby. Minnie explodes, spitting out insults to her daughter calling her “the bitch of the litter.” Kathy responds in kind, calling her mother something akin to a slut. Minnie screams that the invitations are printed and she will become the laughing stock of the town if the wedding is cancelled. Poor Mary. She tries her best to keep peace but she, too, has her turn at emotional outbursts directed toward her husband, Ben, and Minnie.

With all the emotional upheaval throughout the play, somehow after all is said and done, Jake and Mary renew their love for each other, which clearly takes place off stage as well, since Mulkey and Landry are actually husband and wife. What a pleasure to see them work together.

The problem with this production, as directed by Barbara Tarbuck, is the uneven performances as well as occasional sloppy blocking. Mulkey and Landry give fully actualized, riveting, Broadway-caliber performances and fill the stage with their presence. Unfortunately, the actors playing the sons, as well as the actress playing Kathy, didn’t rise much above line readings, something you would expect to see at a non-professional community theatre production. These aspiring young actors need more training in stagecraft, including how to develop a subtext and stage presence. I would encourage them to hone their craft by doing workshop productions similar to what the Actors Studio does. Critics are allowed to attend student productions with the understanding that they will not write a review. This gives the fledgling actors a chance to develop their technique in a protected environment, which in this case director Tarbuck failed to do. She exposed their weaknesses by casting them in parts they were not quite ready to handle, thus doing a disservice to these young actors who did the best they could with material that is above “their pay grade.”

All this said, despite the amateurish performances by some of the cast members, it is worth seeing this production to experience two outstanding pros that deliver impeccable, magnetic characterizations.

Ruskin Group Theatre

3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405 (Free parking)

Run: 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays

Tickets: $25 (Students, Guild members, and seniors: $20)

Closes: March 14, 2015

Reservations: 310.397.3244 or www.ruskingrouptheatre.com

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