Through Oct. 14
The Fruit, Durham
As lodging near a Santa Fe airport goes, it’s nice enough, I guess: two queen beds separated by a small, faded painting of a steer’s skull, a subdued note of Southwestern iconography that prevents Michelle Gonzalez-Green’s too-minimal set from being entirely generic.
But in Bulldog Ensemble Theater’s compelling debut production, when Felix (Marcus Zollicoffer) and his lover, Jackson (Luar Mercado Lopez), join Felix’s mom, Linda (Phyllis Morrison), and his grandfather, Rudy (John Murphy), we discover how small the room really is as this fractured family unpacks its emotional baggage. Even the grandest upgrade could scarcely accommodate the challenges beyond the one that has brought them together: the funeral of a man gone missing from their lives over the past decade.
That would be Cyrus, Linda’s schmuck of an ex-husband, whose absence since Felix turned twelve has estranged his only son, now a rising twenty-something at a high-tech firm in Los Angeles, as well as his father, Rudy, a witty Jewish curmudgeon in his eighties with a touch of the poet and a rhapsodic love for New York City. Cyrus’s departure also left his ex, an African-American schoolteacher in her fifties, as Rudy’s caretaker—a long-term relationship that makes them the center of what playwright Rachel Bonds calls “this ragtag little group of humans wandering the earth together.”
Thaddaeus Edwards’s acting gifts earned more than one five-star INDY review at Manbites Dog Theater, whose June closure prompted the formation of Bulldog Ensemble Theater. In his exciting directorial debut, he’s crafted unforgettable characters from a strong ensemble that displays the strengths of Bulldog’s much-missed predecessor. Morrison’s bedrock performance makes Linda a resilient, loving, no-nonsense mom and daughter-in-law whose expertise in “working things out” is about to be challenged as never before. We’ve missed the trademark integrity of Murphy’s work onstage; his return here fully animates Rudy’s avuncular mischief and compassion as well as his struggles with the early stages of dementia.
Zollicoffer’s Felix chafes against his mother’s well-meant but determined prying, and we watch him grapple with his father’s faithless legacy when a crisis in Jackson’s family forces him to reassess his long-term viability in their relationship. That, in turn, prompts the revelation of some stark home truths about the choices, ethics, and responsibilities involved in love, in one of the most moving and authentic productions of the year. Welcome, Bulldog.
Follow Byron Woods at Twitter @byronwoods. Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.