HOME / SICK
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
July 25, 2012
Currently in its second run this year, Home/Sick is a tremendously enjoyable production that dramatizes the formation and fallout of the 1970s political activist group The Weather Underground. Equipped with a stunning installation design, sharp dialogue, and multifaceted direction, the show is able to link the politics of the Vietnam Era with those of the present day without seeming heavy-handed. And while the shifting alliances within the group might have been more fully explored, Home/Sick is foremost about reviving the questions behind the Underground's efforts, and urging the audience to reconsider their role in the direction our country is taking.
From the moment the audience enters the theater, they are immersed in the characters' world. Combative slogans and drawings cover the walls. Decrepit mattresses are piled at centerstage. Members of the "collective" stalk about the theater—some singing subversive songs, others muttering to themselves, one distributing index cards to audience members for them to complete the sentence, "In my ideal America…"
At rise, a cast member calls upon the audience to answer a series of questions, including "Do you think you have a voice in your government?" and "Is an act of violence ever justified?" I was surprised to find myself in the minority of respondents to both of those questions—no, I will not divulge my answers—which in and of itself was illuminating. The production, to its credit, represents both sides through the varied opinions of the characters, which shift over the course of the show.
The story begins at the 1968 rally at Columbia University, where the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) voice their opposition to the Vietnam War and the government's oppression of civil rights. Membership grows exponentially as a result, and the group's optimism is off the charts. In time, however, government crackdowns and the increasing radicalism of some members lead the group to splinter into different factions. The radicals head underground, and perform a series of targeted bombings intended to "bring the war home." Many feel that their mission is accomplished when the Vietnam War comes to a close, but others insist there is still work to be done. The years that follow prove directionless, however, and the group disintegrates into in-fighting and desperation by 1980.
The show was devised and written collectively by the company, and the personal investment of the performers comes to the forefront as they periodically break character to describe an experience with the subject matter and/or the production itself. While these segments vary in tone and emotional engagement by the performer, together they convey an important message: It is not enough to merely romanticize or criticize the actions taken by The Weather Underground as if the issues of the past are no longer a consideration. Rather, we must acknowledge our role in society as either a participant or passive observer, and take action if our role does not uphold our core beliefs.
Jess Chayes' direction shines in this production, striking a perfect balance between the show's realistic and more stylized moments. Although the stage feels expansive and there are often multiple encounters occurring at once, Chayes directs our focus accordingly so that the most important information is always conveyed. At the same time, if one's eyes should wander elsewhere, she rewards them with a bit of off-the-chart character development. Only twice did a conversation prove difficult to see or hear, which is always a risk when the audience is seated in the round.
If there were one element to this production that could be improved upon, it would be that the political sentiments tend to sound like rhetoric, rather than the actual thoughts of those speaking them. The notable exceptions occur when the words arise from the character's fight for survival and/or meaning in their lives, most often in moments of contention.
Ben Beckley as the fledgling group leader is especially strong in this respect, with a pair of haunting eyes that make it seem as though he would combust were he to pursue any other course of action. Emily Louise Perkins as a new recruit is also visibly connected with the material, transitioning from a naïve girl from the suburbs to a willing combatant, driven by her own sense of right and wrong. Kate Benson and Edward Bauer establish firm emotional connections to their characters' obsessions. Luke Harlan and Anna Abhau Elliott have key moments in which they shine, but at times seem ruled by the material rather than finding an unspoken life for their characters within it.
One cannot imagine this production being nearly as successful without the installation design by Nick Benacerraf and the dramaturgy of Stephen Aubrey. Deanna Frieman (costumes), Miriam Nilofa Crowe (lighting), and Asa Wember (sound) also make significant contributions to the world of the play.
At the end of the show, the cast once again breaks from their characters to read aloud the audience's index cards from the top of the show, responding to the prompt, "In my ideal America…" By that time, the audience has witnessed the rise and fall of The Weather Underground's idealism, and it proves bittersweet to be reminded of our thoughts from earlier. In the performance I attended, some responses sounded like wistful observations, others like feverish calls to action. When mine was read aloud, the actor paused, having difficulty reading a certain word. Just as he moved on, someone else from the audience correctly shouted it out for him. In that moment, it seemed that no matter what our individual roles might be in shaping our country's future, Home/Sick unified us in our idealism for what that future could be.
Go see Home/Sick while it lasts, and keep an eye out for future projects by The Assembly. You won't be sorry you did.