nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
July 22, 2011
"Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief; all kill their inspiration and sing out their grief." This quote from a U2 song called "The Fly" has always seemed to me an extremely appropriate take on artists and their creations. Most artists, whether they be actors, writers, songwriters, or painters, tend to draw on their own lives for their inspiration—and since art is most interesting when there is some sort of conflict, it tends to be the moments of great love or great pain that they channel. Frank Winters's Home Movies, which is premiering at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, focuses on this concept, and creates a nostalgic, heartbreaking piece of theatre.
Home Movies focuses on the ideas of home, and those people who leave "home" and those who stay behind. The experiences we had at home were critical in our formation, and in some ways are the ruler by which we measure every place, experience, and love we have for the rest of our lives. But after we've been away from these places, we change and they change, and we can never quite go back to where we were before.
We follow the story of Sam and Ellie—they were each other's first loves in high school until Sam went off to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career, while Ellie stayed home. Over the years they grew apart and went their own ways until a chance encounter in a train station. Filled with the awkwardness of unexpectedly running into an old friend or lover, the scene provides a long missing artistic inspiration for Sam, who finds out that Ellie is marrying "that guy" from their youth—the last one he expected his old love to end up with. Sam leaves the encounter and feverishly pens a movie script about Sam and Ellie's story, which instantly is picked up for production. After it's been filmed and is on its way to release, Sam returns home to meet with Ellie again to tell her about the film and to ask her to sign release papers—since he had based the movie on her. Ellie, after the initial shock of this, asks to read it, and while flattered at first becomes enraged when she finds that Sam has written the happy ending that they never had: where she decides to come away with him to Los Angeles.
Winters's script cleverly cuts between scenes from the present and scenes from a reading of his screenplay, which gives us glimpses into the birth of their relationship and the development of their love. The writing is funny and heartfelt; it waxes poetic but never seems like it's doing so. Only after the play unfolds do we realize that we are not watching two parallel stories (as the characters in the screenplay version are named Ana and Nate), but the past and the present of these two lives. Winters does a beautiful job of informing the past with the present, and vice versa, and creates a touching and poignant portrayal of how, while we hold on to mannerisms, ease with certain people, and quirks throughout our lives, we really do change at our cores over the years, and its impossible to get the same relationship or feeling back—it's just a ghost of what it once was.
The acting is superb across the board. Jason Ralph's Sam seems a little strong and overly loud at first but becomes endearing, as all of his ticks and quirks seem so human. His longing for Ellie comes across so clearly, as does the pain of realizing that the Ellie he wants was gone a long time ago, and all he holds now is an ideal of her. Sofia Lauwers as Ellie toes the line perfectly with Ellie's loss in a sea of emotions about Sam. Lauwers infuses every word with her anger with him over leaving, over coming back, over feeling used by him for his writing, her hope that there might still be some spark, and a subconscious feeling that she might feel trapped where she is and still want to get out, as she did when she was younger. She flips from flirty and comfortable to withdrawn at all the right moments. And there is such a spark between Lauwers and Ralph that we feel that it might really work out. You can see the history in their every glance at each other.
Alice Wiesner's parallel performance as Ana fits perfectly, as both she and Lauwers share nuances and quirks, and even start to sound alike after a while. And she and Morgan Auld as Nate share great chemistry on stage. They both look a little old to be high-schoolers, but it never matters. They both embody that sense of innocence and energy; they manage to make all of the silly angst we had as teenagers seem so important and world-shattering. Director Steven Laing deserves great credit for his smooth transitions between the scenes and for connecting these bridges between the younger and older versions of the characters.
The character of Sam leaves his love and his inspiration, in Ellie, behind for his art. He killed his own chance of happiness for her but was able to derive his great work of art out of his love for her and pain of losing her. And in the end he realizes that he will never get that back. It can only live on through his imagined version of Ellie, because the real world is starkly different that the stories we create. And, as the hauntingly beautiful Home Movies shows us, we can never truly go back home—home is more like a feeling that can only live on through our memories and our art.