ARTS & CULTURE
Review

A departure that feels studied, not lived

Margaret Gray reviews Ruskin Group Theatre's revival of David French's 1972 Canadian classic, 'Leaving Home'

Ruskin Group Theatre has revived the Canadian classic “Leaving Home,” David French’s heavily autobiographical first play. It’s in some ways an odd choice for the little Los Angeles theater.

Although its theme—intergenerational misunderstanding—is universal, the story is rooted in a specific and remote cultural context, the concerns of which seem unlikely to resonate with audiences here on a visceral level (not a lot of Catholic-hating Orangemen in Santa Monica these days).

Perhaps as a result, this carefully realistic production feels studied, rather than lived; it never quite shakes off its quaintness.

But its central characters, Jacob and Mary Mercer, based on the playwright’s parents, are plum roles, written with nuance, affection and filial exasperation. You can see why Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry, married to one another in real life, wanted to take them on.

Jacob is a heavy-drinking, self-pitying bully who dominates his sons; Mary is their sharp-tongued defender, still in thrall to her passionate husband. It is in their interaction that the play’s heart beats; under the direction of Barbara Tarbuck, they gradually reveal the deep bond that has sustained them through a lifetime of clashes.

Both French’s family and their dramatic counterparts, the Mercers, immigrated to Ontario from Newfoundland, which is sometimes known as “the other Ireland” because of its heavily Irish population. The Mercers retain strong ties to their homeland: its music, dances, religious prejudices (they’re Protestant) and heavy brogue (“think” is “tink”).

But the actors here never persuasively inhabit their “Newfie” ways; they occasionally look a little panicky, as if being tested on tricky material.

Jacob and Mary’s younger son, Bill (James Lastovic), is about to be married, at just 17, to his pregnant girlfriend, Kathy (Sierra Barter). The Mercers have taken the crisis in stride, even though it means Bill will have to convert to Catholicism, and have invited their future in-laws to dinner before the rehearsal.

This meal proves unexpectedly entertaining. Kathy’s mother, Minnie (the wonderful Mary Carrig), is a blunt, bawdy floozy, and a former flame of Jacob’s. Her boyfriend, Harold (Chip Bolcik), an embalmer, appears to have been partly embalmed himself, staring placidly into space throughout her relentless racy badinage.

But this segment is so broad and over-the-top that it seems to belong to a different play. It draws attention from the real conflict, between Jacob and his older son, Ben (Kayde McMullen), a scholarly 19-year-old plotting his own escape from home.

Although he’s clearly the playwright’s stand-in, Ben remains enigmatic. McMullen is a self-effacing performer, and French gives the younger generation so little to say and do that all three youngsters end up standing around, forgotten for long stretches, as their elders misbehave. 

Ultimately, the play’s emotional power depends on the audience’s thorough immersion in its world and its stakes; this production can’t quite make us forget where we are. 

“Leaving Home,” Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 14. $25. (310) 397-3244 or www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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