Domestic Dysfunction

Take your pick of family horrors: Beowulf's Irish 'Beauty Queen,' or Etcetera's Yankee 'Kimberly Akimbo'

Why is it that contemporary theater, film and television are so full of dysfunctional families? Is there no drama to be found in a functional family? Or do we see in these messed-up families glimpses of our own flawed upbringings?

Well, I sincerely hope that no one identifies with the specifics of two familial horror shows now playing: The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Beowulf Alley Theatre, and Kimberly Akimbo at Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series. While the plays differ widely in tone and setting, both productions feature compelling performances, and are dampened slightly by ho-hum technical design.

Beauty Queen's playwright, Martin McDonagh, is known both for his rural Irish settings and his graphic onstage brutality. This play, from 1996, could at first be mistaken for a simple family drama, but it gradually reveals itself to be a violent Irish fairy tale.

The witch of the story may be Mag (Cynthia Jeffery), a deceiving crone whose demands upon her spinster daughter, Maureen (Rhonda Hallquist), are unrelenting. Mag seems to feed on Maureen's misery.

Or perhaps it's Maureen who is the lurking evil. She's a little too eager to fantasize about her mother's death, and she and Mag have differing stories of how Mag's hand was scalded with hot oil. When Maureen brings home a man for the first time, Mag reveals to him Maureen's history of mental illness.

Director Sheldon Metz has chosen an excellent cast and coaxed enthralling performances from them. Jeffery's performance as Mag is entirely free of mean-old-lady caricature. Every moment feels completely, repellently real. It takes courage to fully commit to such an unlikable character, and that integrity ultimately wins our sympathy, if not our love.

Hallquist wisely plays up Maureen's no-nonsense nature, leaving the sinister foreshadowing to others. Her warm, sympathetic energy lets us overlook her character's sometimes-cruel behavior. But once the gap between tone and conduct becomes too wide to ignore, we can look back and see how Hallquist planted the seeds of violence from the beginning.

Jared Stokes, as Maureen's gentleman caller, Pato, exudes enough compassion to shine in that toxic cottage. He's no saint—Pato's a bit handsy with the ladies—and Stokes paints a very human portrait of a man who's essentially good, but also weak.

Robert Anthony Peters rounds out the cast as Pato's brother, Ray. Ray is, in some ways, as blind to others' feelings as Mag is. But rather than adding to the gloom, Peters makes Ray's casual cruelty a comic, youthful counterpoint to the women's Pyrrhic warfare.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a play from 2000 by David Lindsay-Abaire brings a disturbing twist to the American cartoon stereotype of the dysfunctional family: the dopey dad, the indulgent mother, the precocious daughter, the nerdy best friend, etc.

Kimberly Akimbo, at Etcetera, begins with a striking image: A white-haired woman sits outside in the cold, waiting to be picked up by her father, who looks half her age.

Kimberly (Peg Peterson) has a genetic disorder that ages her at an accelerated rate. At 16, she looks like somebody's grandmother. It's a nifty visual metaphor, since Kimberly is also the most emotionally mature person in her family. However, as Kimberly faces a host of problems, from her health issues to school work, she's driven by the desire for a "normal" life.

Peterson is wonderfully endearing as Kimberly. She radiates good will, somehow untarnished by the human wasteland she lives in. She plays the character as almost too young to be 16—she's growing in independence, but she's still eager to please, and she looks with longing for her parents' approval. But her sweetness keeps the mood light.

Like Beauty Queen's Mag, Kim's mother, Pattie, is an emotional black hole. Played by Amanda Gremel, Pattie is a hypochondriac with a growing list of ailments. Gremel makes Pattie a full-grown, squalling infant, unable to see beyond her own needs.

Kim's father, Buddy, has given up fighting Pattie's gravitational pull and numbs his shame with drink. Christopher Johnson gives one of his most nuanced performances here, clearly enjoying the role of drunken oaf, but gradually peeling back layers to reveal the broken man within.

It's achingly ironic that the closest thing Kimberly has to a responsible parent is her homeless, criminal, crazy aunt, Debra (Carley Preston). If Pattie is a black hole, Debra is a hurricane, and Preston has the dynamic stage presence to mop the floor with anyone who opposes her. Her portrayal is horrifying and hysterical, but always convincingly rooted in character.

Kimberly finds a kindred spirit in nerdy schoolmate Jeff (Emilio Zweig). With a loose-limbed physicality and an easy smile, Zweig's Jeff retreats within himself when insulted or abused, but always re-emerges seemingly unscathed.

Director Leslie J. Miller evokes some wonderfully over-the-top performances from her cast and keeps the action moving, in spite of the meandering plot and some sluggish scene changes.

Both shows deal with women grasping a ray of hope (in the form of a man) to release them from an untenable situation. In Beauty Queen, that ray fades, leaving darkness. Kimberly Akimbo ends with optimism (albeit by conveniently not mentioning the heroine's dwindling lifespan).

Both productions, unfortunately, are poorly served by their lighting and scenic design.

In his program notes, Metz comments on the "claustrophobic sense of entrapment" in Beauty Queen's kitchen set (by Metz and Charlie Middagh). Yet, in spite of the minimal furnishings and smudged plaster, the broad Beowulf stage looks quaint, not forbidding, and it's spacious enough to house all seven dwarfs.

Scot Gianelli's lighting certainly underscores the characters' emotional changes, but its lack of subtlety draws attention to itself.

Etcetera's productions use whatever lighting has been established for the theater's mainstage shows. This time, that's a hindrance. The uncredited lighting is extraordinarily poor, leaving characters' faces in shadow for long stretches at a time. The basic pieces of furniture that are rearranged in different scenes lend the show a sitcom air. Kimberly's Jerry Springer life looks clean and safe.

The problem with the scenic design in both cases is that environment plays a crucial role in shaping the characters' need to escape. Without that specificity, the stakes are lowered, and the drama is weakened.

But that is a minor quibble in the face of some very talented actors creating the sort of quality family entertainment you probably shouldn't bring the children to.