Dallas — Where there’s smoke, there’s fire—and there’s plenty of both in Kitchen Dog Theater’s warm-hearted regional premiere of Melissa Ross’ comedy-drama Thinner Than Water. Three grown half-siblings—two sisters and a brother—gather near, but not too near, the bedside of the bad Dad who abandoned them. He’s dying of lung cancer, but in a sure sign of the mess he’s left behind, all his grown kids are smokers, too. Dad didn’t give a damn about us, those ciggies say with a tiny burn of intensity, so why should we? Let the fireworks begin.
With Thinner Than Water, intelligently directed by KDT’s co-artistic head Christopher Carlos at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, playwright Ross faces a real problem: how to make this dysfunctional family show the audience something we haven’t seen before. Because Tolstoy had it wrong, you know: unhappy families are much alike, too, with Dads who leave, Moms who (maybe) should, and kids who spend a lifetime trying to pick up the pieces. Ross can’t make us forget we’ve been over this theatrical ground before; but to her credit, she draws characters so specifically, and with such a sympathetic eye, that we’re roped into caring almost against our will.
This isn’t a cartoon family: each of the messed-up “kids” has flaws, but also people in their lives who see the good stuff, even when they can’t. It’s a mess, and there’s plenty of screaming, cursing and yelling—but we find ourselves rooting for this motley crew. Ross has an easy way with a laugh line and with noisy, argumentative scenes, and her blunt language fits these workaday people. But she also writes focused and quieter scenes that let each of the siblings be the “star” of their own individual story—and let us know them better.
They share a father but have three different mothers, and that’s how the oldest, Renee (Kitchen Dog artistic director Tina Parker), defines them: as children of “the hot mom, the fat mom, and the pain in the ass mom.” Renee’s bitterness—she’s old enough to remember more than the others—runs deep. She’s spent a lifetime chewing over the disappointments and heartbreaks, and has never let Dad get near enough to her own kids to hurt them, too. Mouthy and sarcastic, Parker finds the humor in Renee’s utter inability to lighten up. She’s the classic, conflicted oldest girl, who wants to be in charge of everything, but hates and resents the burden. Vowing to aim for an “amazing” marriage, she’s finding disappointment there, too, though husband Mark (Jeremy Schwartz in a fine, wryly funny turn) seems like a kindred spirit. Before it’s too late, can she find a way to break Dad’s pattern—and stop pushing away the people she loves most?
Brother Gary (Clay Yokum) is meeting a young mom at the coffee shop to see if she’ll take him on as her fatherless son’s Big Brother. Brisk Angela (Kenneisha Thompson) has him pegged right away: he’s basically honest, “but a little fucked up.” Gary works at a comic-book store with his slightly hyper colleague Benjy (an amusing Drew Wall), and has been “saving” for his mythical future life by living in his Mom’s garage…for the past 15 years. Yokum is oddly charming as That Guy You Shouldn’t Date—the one who never answers his cell phone and says “I’m sorry” a lot. Thompson’s role is a bit overwritten, perhaps, but she’s pretty funny telling Gary what might happen if he doesn’t come through for her boy. Somehow, we know Gary will need a second chance—but will he get it?
Lately, Gary’s been sharing the garage with his other half-sister Cassie (Liza Marie Gonzalez), the pretty baby of the family, who’s temporarily broken up with lawyer boyfriend Henry (Jamal Gibran Sterling gives him a gentle, sadly wise appeal). Clearly, Henry is the nicest guy in the world. Cassie misses him, Henry misses her—even the dog misses her—but in the fine old family tradition, she’s halfway out the door. Cassie is, to put it mildly, scattered, and Gonzalez makes her journey toward a less “flaked out” life both funny and exasperating (depending on your history with baby sisters, of course). Will anyone help this girl find some direction in life—or at least teach her to use the organizer on her phone?
The trio is called to the hospital by Dad’s girlfriend Gwen (Angela Wilson), a woman none of them have met. Gwen comes across as a lonely chatterbox at first, but shows a healing spirit as she reaches out to each of these wounded spirits—even harsh Renee. Wilson gives a sweet, funny performance that makes an outsized impact as the story moves along.
The designers firmly anchor this play in the real, even to the awful glare of a hospital waiting area (Lisa Miller designed the lighting). Sound designer John M. Flores comes up with intercom announcements, whiny dogs and evocative songs—and the real rain falling in Renee’s living room (her roof leaks; it’s a metaphor) feels like a joint effort from both sound and technical designers…and maybe a plumber, too. Korey Kent’s best costume is Cassie’s rumpled street-pajama ensemble, and Jen Gilson-Gilliam’s props add telling notes: watch as crumpled tissues pile up under Gwen’s chair in the waiting room.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ inventively crowded set—at least six vividly realized locations co-exist onstage—is part of the “life is messy” theme of Thinner Than Water. Like all of us, every character in this play has a lot going on—“you know…stuff!” says Gary, explaining why he’s too busy to help Dad—and there’s really no time for a death in the family. But death has an insistent way of knocking plans, deadlines and futures off the rails—and, sometimes, sending the living off in new directions.
In a noisily comic vein, Ross is asking very modern questions about the kind of families we know (or are) today. A family, she seems to say, is a family if people want it to be. And it doesn’t matter, once those choices have been made, whether the actual connections are thick with the shared blood of generations…or thinner than water.