How to Make an American Family
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 17, 2009
Jeff Seabaugh's one-man play How to Make an American Family is a warm and wise tour-de-force about his own unorthodox journeys toward parenthood. The program bio of producer Randy Lichtenwalner ends with this sentence
He now works in the field of education and only dabbles in theatre while helping Jeff raise their three children, three cats, one dog, two parakeets, two hermit crabs, and one gerbil—a full-time job in itself.
So, for the alert, the ending of Seabaugh's tale is divulged right away: with his longtime partner, he wades through bureaucratic battles aplenty and finally achieves his goal of become an adoptive dad. The heart of Seabaugh's show, though, is about how he became caretaker and de facto parent, first to his own mother and then to her sister, his developmentally disabled aunt.
Seabaugh's experiences feel authentic and intimate, and will resonate with anyone who has ever had to deal with the illness or disability of a loved one. (Likewise, the stories of his frustration with the adoption agencies that he and Randy have to work with in order to become parents themselves are enormously pertinent, reminding us that institutionalized homophobia remains very much with us.)
Seabaugh tells his story through narration in the first person and then, mostly, by inhabiting the characters of his tale. He brings close family members to life vividly, along with old friends (such as an elderly black woman named Ruby who helps him care for his dying mother) and new acquaintances (of whom perhaps the most unforgettable is Simone, a startlingly inappropriate candidate for motherhood whom he encounters in a parenting class). Seabaugh's writing throughout is rich and funny and compassionate, and his acting is superb as he moves among these various creations effortlessly, shifting from one to another on a dime, as they say. He never changes costume or adds accessories: each character is conjured through voice and body language, and uncannily he lets us really see these people as he transforms into them. It is a splendid solo performance.
Of course, Seabaugh's excellent work is augmented by a fine behind-the-scenes crew—the utter invisibility of each of these artists' work is what makes it particularly impressive. The team is led by director Samuel Buggeln, who has staged the piece with purity and simplicity, allowing Seabaugh's words and characterizations to reach the audience with remarkable clarity and potency. Sound designer Marcelo Anez and lighting designer Dans Marie Sheeham follow suit.
My only quibble with the show is that its two stories feel interconnected rather than connected: it didn't feel like Seabaugh's experiences with his mother and aunt ultimately informed his experiences with his adopted kids except in the most generalized way. Perhaps he needs more time to gain perspective on how the one set of events really influenced the other. Meantime, How to Make an American Family is exquisite theatre, offering some thoughtful and loving insights about being a son and being a father and learning how to be better at both.