Farmer's Branch — The Chicago cemetery in which two siblings stand over the grave of their recently departed father may be named Graceland, but when playwright Ellen Fairey titles her play the same way, it’s more than a simple reference to their physical location. Grief is a lot more complicated than that.
So is grace.
And so is the L.I.P. Service production at the Firehouse Theatre in Farmer’s Branch. Director Van Quattro treats these characters with a sympathetic eye and a non-judgmental heart like the knowing nod and gentle chuckle of someone at the end of the bar in the middle of the afternoon.
Emily Scott Banks plays Sara to R. Andrew Aguilar’s Sam. They stand with the awkwardness of adult children who’ve lost their parent on Jason Leyva’s set that combines cemetery with upstairs apartment and rooftop overlook. The mish-mash of locations mirrors the mixed up nature of their uninspiring lives. He’s a delivery driver after dropping out of school and she’s worked her way up to manager at a store. But none of this information comes out smoothly. Each character carries so much baggage they can’t help but bump into the other.
When your parent commits suicide, small talk gets big and innocent comments aren’t.
The easiest way out is to head to their father’s favorite bar where Sara ends up going home with Joe (Andrew Kasten). The roll in the hay is just another step in her weird stages of grief. Things take a turn when she encounter’s Joe’s son, Miles (Miles Alexander) the next morning. Even though there were no illusions about Joe’s motives the night before, Miles’ inquiry to Sara about his father’s lady-killing tactics is hilarious in its awkwardness. If this was just a farce, the scene could be written off as series of opportunistic comedic payoffs for the inept seduction of the night before. Instead, there is also a parallel between Sara’s search to know her father and Miles attempting the same thing, however cringe worthy.
The plot is conveniently twisted by virtue of the fact that Miles happens to work at the eponymous cemetery. Also, Sam’s ex-girlfriend, Anna (Elizabeth Kensek) dumped him for their dad. But that’s not the most unbelievable turn on the menu. When Sara ends up returning to Joe’s apartment to look for her father’s watch, she ends up kissing Miles and is promptly interrupted by Joe.
It’s like an episode of Three’s Company written by Sam Shepard: funny and wrong.
The play revolves around Sara and so Banks has to do the evening’s heavy lifting. Her drive to understand and simultaneous internal resistance carries us a long way. Unfortunately, that arched eyebrow and rigid spine doesn’t seem like it would be prone to the wiles of a 15-year-old (though she’s supposed to think he’s older). For his part, Alexander looks that young because he is that young. In earlier scenes, his awkwardness plays off as endearing. It works right up until it doesn’t. If you can get over the ick factor of that moment, the fallout and resolution are woven nicely into the play as a whole.
Aguilar plays Sam as a loveable loser. He and Banks hit their stride late in the play in a climactic scene in the graveyard. If they started the evening with the stakes that clear, the evening would have a much greater weight. Kasten is transparent as the aging player. His yearning for connection to his son and his youth is particularly touching. Kensek’s cameo as Anna is distinct and heartfelt.
Though it is as short as a one-act, it doesn’t feel like one. Playwright Fairey doesn’t solve the questions that she raises, but she does help us recognize that we are all asking the same ones.
And there’s grace in that.