Curve of Departure, making its world premiere on South Coast Repertory‘s Julianne Argyros Stage, is kind of an uncomfortable play.
I’m going to give you a quick summary, at the risk of some mild spoilers.
Many years ago, a man walked out on his wife and 12-year-old son. Now that man has died suddenly, and his ex-wife has traveled with his elderly father to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the funeral. For one night before the service, these two are sharing a hotel room with the dead man’s now-adult son and his boyfriend. They begin their time together politely, but over the course of a night spent in close quarters, their truths come spilling out, and they each make decisions about what to do next in their lives.
The elderly man, Rudy (Allan Miller), and presumably his now-late son, are Jewish New Yorkers. The ex-wife/daughter-in-law, Linda (Kim Staunton), is African American (I’m not sure where she’s from). Her homosexual son, Felix (Larry Powell), is mixed race, and his boyfriend, Jackson (Christian Barillas), is a Latino man from Bakersfield. Rudy has Alzheimers and is losing his mind and control of his body, Linda is grappling with whether to let go of her own life to care for him, and Felix and Jackson are contemplating trying to adopt Jackson’s two-year-old niece.
I believe the playwright, Rachel Bonds, was, at least in part, painting a portrait of a modern family as they meet while all standing at different crossroads. That’s fine, and it’s interesting, but I wish I could talk to more people who have seen the show to find out how they felt about any characterizations meant to reflect things they know in real life.
For example: I’m not black. I can’t say how it would have felt to watch this play if I were, but I suspect I would have been uncomfortable with how race was not addressed directly.
Homosexuality is addressed directly. Rudy’s experience living in a tiny apartment with the other eight members of his family as a Jewish boy in New York is addressed directly. Bakersfield’s drug problem and its effects on families is addressed directly. The lingering effects of being abandoned by your father are addressed from a variety of angles. There are a lot of social and cultural issues that get a direct nod, but despite the script calling for the racial mix we see on stage, nobody mentions race by name. To me, this felt like a serious oversight, but I would like to know how it felt to the people of color in the audience.
On the other hand, I do have first-hand experience being a long-term caregiver for an elderly relative whose health declined over a long period of time. Seeing Rudy struggle with losing himself and wanting to make his own decision about how long to let his decline go on was uncomfortably familiar. Seeing Linda struggle with how best to care for him and how much of herself to sacrifice to that care was also uncomfortably familiar– so much so that I left the theatre wondering if some of my own experience has gone mainstream. Based on my conversations with people afterwards, I’d guess that’s the case.
While I was unpacking my feelings about the show, I listened to SCR’s podcast where Dramaturg John Glore interviews Rachel Bonds about her work and this play. It definitely helped me focus my thoughts well enough to get something in print here, and it improved my opinion of the play. I’m embedding it here so you can listen to it, too:
Also, and I’m sort of sorry I waited until the end to say this: the set is fabulous. I want to specifically commend Scenic Designer Lauren Helpern and Lighting Designer Scott Zielinski for the exterior set / sunrise towards the end of the show. It’s all so simple, yet it perfectly evoked sunrise in Santa Fe. Bravo!
I hope you’ll go see this show so we can talk about it.
Curve of Departure runs at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, CA, until October 15. Find more info and tickets at SCR.org.