From Long Days’ Journey into Night to Fun Home, playwrights embrace Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle: every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. (Okay, Tolstoy used the word “unhappy,” but I submit that unhappiness is the foundation of dysfunction.) Theatergoers can visit families suffering from alcoholism, violence and jealousy, from deeply buried secrets and shattered dreams. It can be reassuring to see one’s own family drama reflected in the horrors of others’.
The Silberman family’s dysfunction, on full display in Theatre West’s world premiere Walking in Space, relates to mother Francine’s (Kathie Barnes) addiction to downers. Her four children, two over age 21, two under, come together for the 1972 version of an intervention: carting her off to a mental institution.
When the play opens, Francine is doing her nightly ritual: staggering through the house stoned (“walking in space”) and crashing to the floor. The youngest, Lori (Liv Denevi), performs her own nightly ritual: getting her mother back to bed, where she sleeps the next day away.
Lori’s in high school but not getting to many classes. Her guilt-ridden older siblings have left Lori alone with the situation. They contact a doctor (David Mingrino) and all show up for his arrival, complete with ambulance and two burly attendants. It’s a decade into a problem that began when a psychiatrist prescribed Francine “relaxers,” including Seconal and Placidyl (now generally unavailable).
The eldest, Patti (Mary Elisabeth Somers), has returned to the family home in suburban Baltimore from New York, where she works in politics. She’s dating someone despised by her family, who prefer who long-time doting boyfriend and medical intern Keith (Andrew Cereghino). Oldest son Kirby (Cecil Jennings) is torn between being present to support his family and keeping his boss happy so he can move up the corporate ladder. Matt (Hogan Mason) is a hapless college student who finds his power when the others seem frozen with inaction.
At more than two and a half hours, the show could use some trimming. Through extensive exposition, Francine’s history of addiction is laid out multiple times. The plot occasionally descends into melodrama and tends to resolve itself too neatly. Yet there are some notable moments of warmth and humor, as well as some harrowing moments in service to a timely message about the impact of over-prescribing dangerous, addictive pharmaceuticals.
Arden Teresa Lewis directs, guiding a dedicated cast through a marathon of tears, anger and, above all love.
Walking in Space is at Theatre West through Oct. 8, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. The performance on Friday, Sept. 29 will be ASL interpreted, and the performance on Sunday, Oct. 1 will be sensory-friendly. Tickets are $35 with online advance purchase, or $40 at the door. Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West.