When it comes to toxic families, John Patrick Shanley’s makes Eugene O’Neill’s look like the Brady Bunch.
In his virulent family drama, “Beggars in the House of Plenty,” currently being reprised at Theatre/Theater in Los Angeles, playwright Shanley portrays his father as viciously cruel, unrelentingly angry, and always violent, and his mother as a classic enabler, standing by wordlessly as her husband bullies his sons.
Shanley, the youngest of five sons in an Irish-American family in the Bronx casts himself as a timid, needy five-year-old continually searching for a sign of affection from his cocky older brother, Joey, his oblivious sister Sheila, and his negligent parents. (The other three of Shanley’s real-life brothers are not depicted in this play, presumably because their characters and relationships would only mirror and intensify the ongoing pain.)
As the play opens, Sheila (Lena Georgas), her father’s “pet,” appears in her wedding dress, euphoric to be escaping the family, to tell Johnny (Chris Payne Gilbert) that he must not expect to see her anymore, as she will not be visiting her childhood home very often. And, true to her word, she disappears from the play at that point.
But not before the arrival of the blustering Joey (David Gail), returning home after a stint in the Navy. Handsome in his sailor’s uniform, he is full of inflated plans for his future. But his father soon takes the wind out of his sails by scorning him for having dropped out of high school. And Johnny, starved for attention, burns the house down.
As the play progresses and a decade passes, we see the devastating effects that the parents (Jack Conley and Francesca Casale) continue to have on their sons. Joey, still fulminating with his extravagant plans for the future, is a completely broken spirit, cowering in terror at the sight of his father. But Johnny, grown to manhood in this loveless household, is determined to make a meaningful life for himself in spite of all the violence and mixed messages he has endured since childhood. In the end, he is able to confront his father and chide him for not recognizing the potential for happiness within his own family and making his children “beggars in the house of plenty.”
Larry Moss, who has taught at Juilliard and Circle in the Square in New York, and is currently the Artistic Director of the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, directs his cast with a maximum of sturm und drang and a slight sprinkling of humor. Shanley, who went on from this autobiographical 1991 play to win an Oscar, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize for “Moonstruck” and “Doubt” furnishes ongoing proof that a toxic childhood needn’t cripple one for life.
“Beggars in the House of Plenty” will continue at Theatre/ Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., in Los Angeles Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 29th.
Call (800) 838-3006 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.