Drug addiction, illness, poverty, and death—any one of these could rend a family apart, but Rachel Bonds compresses all of them and more into Curve of Departure, her new play at Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, directed by Mike Donahue. When Cyrus dies in New Mexico, the remnants of the family he abandoned gather for the funeral. His son Felix (Justin Weaks) arrives from Los Angeles with his boyfriend, but the two are short on money and have to share a hotel room with Felix’s mother Linda (Ora Jones) and Cyrus’ father Rudy (Peter van Wagner), who, racked with Alzheimer’s, now depends on Linda’s care.
In such a confined space, mirrored by Studio Theatre’s intimate venue, secrets cannot lie hidden for very long.
Felix is caught between his father’s death, his grandfather’s decline, and (most terrifying) a new child. His boyfriend Jackson (a goofy and compassionate Sebastian Arboleda, who plays against every stereotype; Jackson is Latino, poor, tattooed, and fatherless) wants them to adopt his two-year-old niece to save her from a drug-addicted mother and abusive home life. A kid “wouldn’t be cheap,” Felix says, already underpaid and overworked, but memories of his father lurk—hating him is bad enough; becoming him, unconscionable.
Justin Weaks, as Felix, is particularly sensitive to subtle changes in mood, registering each with tics, movement, and modulations in his posture, as if his body itself were compelled by the demons that trouble him. In contrast, Ora Jones’ Linda begins the play with stately self-control, too concerned with taking care of others to give in to her own needs, but slowly allows us to see her inner turmoil.
Despite their troubles, the family still manages to laugh and tease. Without these wisecracks, their predicament would be unbearable, for them and for us. Lauren Helpern’s highly realistic set doesn’t allow us to escape into the artifice of theater, the comfort that it’s all just a show.
Only Rudy, by his Alzheimer’s, is compelled to tell the truth, but it wells up muddied with the past, his mind always returning to his New York City childhood, to better times. Rudy’s dementia sets the rhythm of the play, and Van Wagner moves with haunting ease between lighthearted jokes and furious delirium. With no intermission to cool things off, worries accumulate from the opening words to the end, interrupted only by one masterful scene change set to music designed by Roc Lee.
The characters have no way out of their terrible situation, blocked at every turn by fate and by one another, seeking comfort from the same people who antagonize them. At the end, none of their problems have been resolved. They have braved one terrible night, and fortify themselves for the day ahead.
Rachel Bonds writes for a very diverse cast (Linda is black, Rudy is Jewish, Felix biracial), but centers her play, which runs through January 20th, on the issues that roil society at large. It is a bleak—but honest—portrait of our time.