Fort Worth — In a Dark Dark House: Truly, where better to find playwright Neil LaBute? Unlike the God of Genesis, who took a look around creation and saw that it was good, LaBute seems hard-pressed to find much light in the human condition. But clearly he knows the darkness and how to write it—with a touch of Mamet, a streak of Sam Shepard (to whom he dedicates this play), and a gray North Country bitterness that’s all his own.
New and scrappy Proper Hijinx Productions gives us the polar opposite of a silent night with their tense and probing production of LaBute’s semi-autobiographical 2007 play. It’s the first-season closer for the itinerant company, who this time borrow a venue from Amphibian Stage Productions. There’s not a sugar plum in sight, but in an odd way, you might call it seasonal: what says Christmas like two brothers and a choke hold?
Self-destructive younger sibling Drew (Aaron White), a disbarred (but wealthy) lawyer in trouble for drugs, DUI and other transgressions, is under court-mandated observation in a country-club psychiatric unit. He’s asked older brother Terry (Jeff Burleson) to visit. Drew, it turns out, wants Terry to back him up on mitigating details Drew has revealed about his abusive childhood and adolescence.
From their first moment together, as Terry (hands jammed tightly into his pockets) flinches away from the hug Drew offers, we feel the long-held discomfort and unspoken secrets that lie between these brothers. Home for them was never a safe place, but a cage within which they experienced physical violence and worse from adults who should have been protectors, not predators and enablers. But what, exactly, do each of them remember? It seems there’s been a lifetime of silence between them; they’ve never as adults talked about the past.
“I need the truth from you,” Terry tells Drew—about their father, and about a young man who drifted through their lives one long summer ago. In a preface to the play, LaBute says he struggled especially hard to reach “the kernel of hard truth” at the center of this story—because some of it happened to him. “I too grew up in a dark house.”
We feel empathy for Terry and Drew’s pain, but don’t trust their self-serving and ever-changing versions of what happened. White’s Drew is a nervously laughing, flippant fellow with a guarded, shifting gaze and a half-grown boy’s appetites. By comparison, Burleson’s Terry—a veteran, security guard and volunteer umpire—seems the steadier, better man. But as we look harder we sense anger, confusion—perhaps even guilt?—in his hunched shoulders and clenched words. Director and Hijinx founder Stefany Cambra keeps the pacing fast and sharp, running these two along the knife edge of LaBute’s twisting, turning plot as we—and they—try to understand this story in both the past and present tense.
LaBute’s script is a workout, asking actors to create layered portraits of trauma cloaked in heavy emotional camouflage. Beyond the drugs and the risk taking, Terry and Drew work every distracting dodge (from physical tussling to homophobic “humor” to arguing over the word “dude”) to avoid looking their demon straight in the eye. White and Burleson—though at times reading too cool for the situation (a peril that’s built into the script)—are mostly successful (and at times riveting) playing both ends of the damaged spiritual duality the brothers have fine-tuned for years.
House, which runs without intermission, breaks the brother-to-brother action with an extended middle scene between Terry and Jennifer (flirty, self-aware Madeleine Morris), a 16-year-old who manages her father’s gas-station Putt Putt. They banter in crisp exchanges that even Jennifer half-jokingly calls “creepy.” Why are we here? There’s a connection—but to say any more would edge into spoiler territory.
The play’s final minutes are loaded (overloaded, really) with one revelation/twist/surprise after another, each one leading us toward another, darker face of this story. “I know what you’ve done,” says one brother to another. But in a memory play built around love and fear, lies and betrayals—who can say what is truly known?
A note: In the new year, Proper Hijinx will wander no more. The company’s 2017 season has found a home at the Addison Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. See TJ’s season announcement here.