Here’s a deal, L.A. theaters: We’ll happily watch all the liquored-up-dysfunctional-family-reunion dramas you care to stage, as long as you cast Anne Gee Byrd as the mother.
Byrd plays Carol, a recent widow, in Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Permanent Image,” which is opening Rogue Machine Theatre’s eighth season. As an astringent, tipsy termagant, she’s so hilarious, appalling and endearing that she could carry the production all by herself.
Luckily, she doesn’t have to, because Ned Mochel and Tracie Lockwood are also onstage, playing Carol’s adult children, Bo and Ally, who have returned to their childhood home in Idaho for their father’s funeral.
Bo, a photojournalist, has been traveling the world, documenting grisly atrocities. Ally lives just a few hours away but is consumed by her business and disintegrating family.
Both siblings are prickly about their life choices and concerned about their mother's reaction to bereavement. Carol has redecorated the house in a really weird way and shot the neighbor’s dog with a BB gun. Although a sly smile belies her brusque demeanor from time to time, she’s not a doting mother.
“Just because you went to college doesn’t mean you’re a psychiatrist!” she sneers if Ally or Bo ventures an insight. When they revert to brawling (wonderfully choreographed by Mochel, who doubles as violence designer), she sprays them with the hose. And, as both kids nervously remark, she’s drinking again. And how did their father die, anyway? Was he even sick?
Hunter, an Obie-winning playwright (for “A Bright New Boise,” which had its West Coast premiere at Rogue Machine in 2012) and a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, wrote “A Permanent Image” early in his career. It uses a trustworthy mechanism (the family reunion) and a reliable fuel (alcohol) to power its escalating face-offs and revelations.
Carol sloshes liquor into her glass until she’s drunk enough to blurt out some shocking news, then hands the bewildered kids a boxful of home movies, which turn out to feature their dad, Martin (Mark L. Taylor), before his death, grouchily explaining the Big Bang to Carol’s off-camera prompts.
The kids remain puzzled by this evidence of their janitor father's late-blooming interest in the cosmos. (“After all this time, suddenly, the man has an inner life?”) And in fact Martin and Carol's vague belief system doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it doesn’t matter: The play’s engine carries it to a moving and visually arresting conclusion, with the help of Nicholas Santiago’s video projections on David A. Mauer’s set.
If, as the old adage has it, directing is 90% casting, then director John Perrin Flynn gets an A right off the mark with this exceptional group, but his care is also apparent in the fluid blocking and the natural interactions. If it's hard to look away from Byrd even for a second, Mochel and Lockwood’s expressions make it worth the effort.
“A Permanent Image,” Rogue Machine in Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 5 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays. Ends July 20. $30-$35. (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours.