After Rachel Bonds' "Five Mile Lake" had its world premiere in 2014 at South Coast Repertory, news that SCR would be producing Bonds' new "Curve of Departure" this fall was thrilling.
The last time I remember feeling this excited about an opening was in my 1970s childhood, during the build-up to one of the "Star Wars" movies. Bonds' plays lack spaceships, larger-than-life characters and cosmic battles. Some might go so far as to say they lack drama. Like "Five Mile Lake," "Curve of Departure" focuses on ordinary people trying their best to behave well in unglamorous circumstances. They're not fighting evil; they're having tough days, negotiating delicate, unseen emotions in small rooms. Their tragedies and life-and-death decisions are folded into the creases of thoroughly mundane activities.
A high proportion of exposition to action lives in these works, which are still evolving, and which occasionally falter. Still, by the end of "Curve of Departure," just as with "Five Mile Lake," I felt as though I had taken a journey with people I knew well.
"Curve of Departure" is set in an airport hotel room in Santa Fe, N.M., brought to life on a set by Lauren Helpern. It's a little cramped for the four people obliged by circumstances to spend the night there: 80-year-old Rudy; his 50-ish daughter-in-law, Linda; Linda's twentysomething son, Felix; and Felix's boyfriend, Jackson. This group would never ordinarily share a bedroom, but as Linda tells her son, "Sometimes when people die, you do some weird things."
They've come for the funeral of Cyrus — Rudy's son, Linda's husband and Felix's father. Cyrus abandoned all three of them years ago, and his sudden death has left them off-balance, struggling to swallow their resentment and brace themselves for a sure-to-be-awkward ordeal with the family he preferred to them.
Upon seeing Rudy and Linda in the room together, he watching TV in his pajamas while she irons his suit, we find it easy to assume at first that they are a couple. Even after it's clear that Rudy was Linda's father-in-law, you can imagine the two of them forming a romantic bond at some point after Rudy's wife died and Linda split with his son. Their conversation conveys a husband-and-wifely rapport: mutually familiar, teasing, affectionate and exasperated. I ultimately concluded that they're meant to have a purely platonic, filial relationship, if in some ways more intimate than marriage.
Rudy, who initially comes across as sharp and feisty, turns out to have health problems — memory loss, incontinence — and Linda cares for him more devotedly than a live-in nurse.
Together Linda and Rudy wait for Felix to arrive from California with his new boyfriend. In a more traditional social-issue drama, Felix's sexuality might be a point of contention. Or maybe the different ethnic backgrounds of this "strange ragtag little group of humans wandering the Earth together," as Rudy poetically describes them, would provoke conflict: Rudy is Jewish, Linda is African American, Felix is a mixture of the two, and Jackson is Latino. Here, though, these identities are woven so intricately into the family quilt that they barely rate a mention.
Yet even people who unhesitatingly accept one another, Bonds suggests here, do worry, disagree and keep secrets out of love — and these realistic conflicts can clutter up a room quickly (as does, from time to time, the heavy-handed melodrama). Although I found director Mike Donahue's pace a little sluggish at moments, I was impressed by how fully he has encouraged his cast members to inhabit their roles.
Kim Staunton brings the richly drawn Linda to worried, brave, vulnerable life, while Allan Miller invests Rudy with a poignant and endearing whimsy. Larry Powell, who was such a delight last spring in the Geffen Playhouse's "The Legend of Georgia McBride," here struggles a bit to fit his powerful stage presence into the slightly underwritten Felix. Christian Barillas, hilarious as Ronaldo on "Modern Family," seems similarly hampered by the earnest, expository Jackson. Still, the four actors work together well, discovering the subtle humor in Bonds' writing.
Bonds' characters find solace in nature, an unseen Southwest terrain memorably conjured by Scott Zielinski's gorgeous lights. "Curve of Departure" is a play that sneaks up on you instead of bashing you on the head, and I'm still thinking about it.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Curve of Departure’
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; ends Oct. 15
Info: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
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