Death and Turkeys

Give thanks for the sturdy holiday drama Savage Bond

It's no secret that funerals are ripe settings for drama and so are family-dominated holidays. Sparks, therefore, are sure to fly in a play that brings six longtime friends back to their hometown for a funeral the day before Thanksgiving.

You might also expect gallons of sentiment in such a play. But there's a refreshing lack of the icky stuff in Savage Bond, a sturdy new drama now onstage at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company.

The grown folks in Steve Holiday's play are instead prone to sarcastic outbursts, snide asides and grim joshing. This much is clear from the opening scene, which finds the half-dozen pals shivering at the graveside of their friend Edwin Savage, who perished after skating onto thin ice.

The darkly comic opening perfectly sets the tone for the chilly scenes of winter that follow. It also makes us want to learn more about the friends: Sybil (Bree Boyd), Tyce (Patrick Baum), Dru (Royah Beheshti), Evelyn (Lori Hunt), Melissa (Meagan Jones) and Danny (Andrew Baughman).

Most of the action takes place at the home of the deceased, a tradition-loving single man who had already done the shopping for Thanksgiving dinner. After everybody decides to stay for turkey—an ice storm has closed the airport anyway—the main dish turns out to be not the stuffed bird but the departed's diary. It's bursting with secrets, don't you know.

There's also much talk about a last will and testament, a fateful hiking trip years earlier and a china set in the attic that holds deep meaning. Given the emotionally fraught terrain of Savage Bond, we wait for the saucers and teacups to be thrown. That the dinnerware remains safely boxed is one of the play's many surprises.

Secrets and lies usually go together like potatoes and gravy, but Holiday piles our plates with the former and goes easy on the latter. In other words, he takes a charitable view of his characters, which makes their fits of guilt harder to appreciate. Holiday also struggles to convey what the dead man was like and why his gravitational pull was so strong.

Savage Bond, winner of Arizona Theatre Company's 2012 Arizona Playwriting Award, gives actors a mighty challenge. Not only must the audience believe in the titular bond between the friends, but in their minute-to-minute mood changes as well. Sybil, for example, is prickly and tearful and annoyed and sweet—sometimes in the same sentence.

Boyd, who plays the mercurial Sybil, is not always convincing during the first half-hour of the 90-minute play. But like the rest of the cast, she gives a performance that builds momentum and ultimately gets under our skin.

Hunt has less to work with as Evelyn, who is estranged from most of the others. But here again, the performance slowly achieves emotional clarity. Baum plays the horndog Tyce with a wicked smile, but it's Beheshti who comes through with perhaps the most winning work—she's a blast of fresh air as the dim fashion plate Dru.

The play is directed by Katherine Monberg, ATC's literary associate, who also did the honors for a staged reading of Savage Bond at Old Pueblo Playwright's New Play Festival. Under her direction, the cast hits pay dirt more often than not.

For a play that's built on secrets (even the house harbors one), Savage Bond is remarkably effective at revealing them without melodrama or fakey theatrics. Best of all, the playwright doesn't explain everything. He leaves more than a little mystery on the table.

Savage Bond is more restrained than its synopsis might indicate. It's a mark of Holiday's maturity that he lets the audience put two and two together.

He also gets maximum metaphorical mileage from the wintry weather. That being said, the cold, hard truth is that Savage Bond will feel derivative if you've seen The Big Chill, the 1983 movie about friends who reunite for the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. Secrets are revealed, relationships are transformed or rekindled, and everybody learns a little something about themselves and each other.

The boomer film classic was released 30 years ago with a tagline that could also apply to this new play: "In a cold world, you need your friends to keep you warm."

Sure, you could give the cast grief for not nailing every nuance of Holiday's multi-layered script. Or you could be thankful that each of them hits the majority of its 6 million notes.

One thing's for damn sure: The play is no turkey.

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