It’s disorienting walking into the Evjue Theatre for Mercury Players’ current production, A Place in the Woods. The shoe-box shaped space is arranged in a new way, with audience seating on the two “short ends” of the rectangle, with a kitchen/living room set taking up the middle of the theater — something that’s always been possible, but I’ve never seen before. (Clever set design by Doug Dion.) The first few scenes are also a bit disorienting, since much of the action is obscured by long panels of brown translucent fabric that hang from the ceiling, creating the titular woods.
We meet the characters through this fabric haze, as the matriarch of the family (Marcy Weiland) is returned home late at night, after she was found wandering alone in her housecoat and slippers by an overly eager local police officer (Kathleen Tissot). Mom’s uptight and responsible son Shaun (Josh Paffel) is relieved. And annoyed. And worried that his cantankerous mother is losing it and his no-good brother (Edric Johnson) isn’t stepping up to keep her safe. Grandson Alex (Lon Tremain-Woodcock) watches, amused and bewildered, as his family flips out on each other while Grandma flips them off. Unable to save the adults, he focuses on saving the planet by insisting that they recycle as they clean up the house and figure out what to do next.
As I mentioned, the set design is intriguing and innovative. The play, by Chicago playwright and filmmaker Erik Gernand, is not. It’s a clumsy family drama that capitalizes on two over-worked themes; the iconic “Mom, Dad, I’m gay,” from the 1990s and the increasingly prevalent, “Wow, Mom’s got dementia. What are we going to do with her?” that seems to have gripped every writer over 45. At this point neither of these memes is interesting on its own and unfortunately mashing them together does nothing but prolong the journey towards an obvious ending.
To move the dysfunctional family festival along, teenager Tremain-Woodcock has the unenviable job of serving as the plot traffic cop, urging our attention forward at distinct intersections. With lines (paraphrased here) like “Gee Dad, who’s the hot guy in all these pictures I found in a box of your high school stuff, that was conveniently left out for me? Was he your first boyfriend?” This is followed by gems like “We never really talk about anything!” and in the final scene, “Wow! Now I know what the write about for my college essay!”
Although the script is overwritten and frequently on-the-nose as a kitchen sink drama, director Suzan Kurry occasionally allows her actors step into different genres, with unfortunate results. Weiland’s haunted screams about someone lurking in the woods are straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, while Johnson’s constant efforts of reassurance sound like the mantra of a serial killer. (“It’ll be fine. I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry.”) (Insert deranged look and suspiciously calm tone here.) These are offset by the overly friendly police officer, whose scenes work a little too hard to evoke that “small town girl who never left and still refers to everyone by their high school nickname” vibe. Tissot’s goofy desperation for Paffel to come hang out with the old gang at euchre night feels like a plot from “Three’s Company,” except here Jack Tripper really is gay and has to break it to Officer Class of ’88 Reunion Committee before the end of the episode.
And that’s such a minor revelation, compared to the boatload of others in the play. In fact there are so many — each accompanied by the removal of one of the suspended fabric panels — that the shock and awe that’s supposed to be generated by the final horrible disclosure is all used up.
Paffel loads up the car at the end of the play, ready to bring mom and son back to Chicago for more family fun after literally cleaning up the messes that were made in his childhood home. That’s the cue for Tremain-Woodcock to declare that after all that’s happened, maybe now he’s ready to apply to colleges on the west coast, instead of sticking close to home. Smart move, kid. I’d get as far away from these characters as possible.