Every family has their way of interacting, loving, and fighting, giving the word dysfunctional free reign. The Village Repertory Co.’s The Lyons attempts to reveal the heart of a family through three extended vignettes. Centered on matriarch Rita Lyons, her dying husband, aloof son, and neurotic daughter, the play’s emotion and power is often at the mercy of whoever is at the forefront of the conversation. Luckily for the audience, this is often the mother or son, who both ably carry the impressive burden of being honest and humorous.
Starting in a hospital, Rita Lyons (Samille Basler) verbally bludgeons her husband Ben (Nat Jones) with stories, quips, and a waterfall of words, overwhelming her cantankerous bedridden spouse. She is forceful, funny and sometimes mean, slinging opinions like arrows. When Ben exasperatedly exclaims, “I’m dying Rita!” she archly tolerates the outburst and responds, “I know, but I’m trying to be positive.”
Rita is mesmerizing. She regales the room with memories, drawing in the characters and audience into her story. As she reveals a random bit of family history, to the surprise of her husband and son, you can feel the audience lean forward. While there is humor in the storytelling, at its core is the painful revelation that she had a ‘slow and inevitable hatred’ for her husband. Like driving past a car wreck or watching bad reality TV, there’s no turning away from the mess of this family.
The fighting verges on uncomfortable in its authenticity. No one wants to go to the theater to only feel like they’ve stepped into their parents’ daily drama. But for Director Keely Enright, she loved it. “It spoke to me. It is hysterically funny. It is a real and honest story of people at a certain age, asking ‘what is marriage? What happens when you lose a partner and start over?’ And it’s not the cute granny or crazy grandpa. They aren’t relegated to secondary characters. They’re not caricatures,” she says.
Just when the play is heading towards vaudeville, harsh truth bombs explode and weigh the story down. Ben expresses his intense disappointment in his son. Meanwhile, other reveals of heavier themes, like the fact that Rita is considering killing her husband, is told within the context of a joke.
Basler anchors the entire play with her intense, emotional performance that allows the story to transition from witty bickering between her family members to authentic life lessons. When she inappropriately suggests her daughter’s son might be a little slow, she succeeds in being both a bitch and comedic performer. When she reveals her fear at being alone, admitting, “I don’t know what to do or who I am,” sniffles in the audience prove her equal prowess at being relatable.
With only six actors, a tiny Woolfe Street Playhouse stage, and a conversation-based dialogue, the play is revealing and personal, yet at times false depending who is at the helm. Ben is a little wanting. His intense expletives shouted indiscriminately offer needed reprieve from any long lasting serious moment, but it feels overdone with the huffing, puffing, and eye rolls. Daughter Lisa Lyons is a complicated role that is unfulfilled by Samantha Andrews. A nervous, weak woman with poor romantic tastes and an affinity for booze, it’s a fascinating portrait that could steal the show with opportunities for comedic genius or alcohol-fueled vitriol, but instead comes off as pantomime.
Derek T. Pickens sweeps in as son Curtis Lyons and balances his mother’s powerful presence with a well-played sense of boredom and condescension. Skepticism and sarcasm are his defense against a family fraught with emotion.
While the first and third scene are in the hospital, the middle scene is in a New York apartment, highlighting the likeable son as he flirts with a real estate agent selling the flat. This smaller part, played by Jay Danner, is intense and while the acting is superb, the entire premise is peculiar. Despite not balancing the dark humor as successfully as the hospital scenes, it’s still fascinating.
A return to the hospital for the final scene is also a return to the play’s strength, with Rita flinging cutting words like knives, skewering her grown children. She harshly zings her son, “You’ve had a dozen years to write your way out of mediocre obscurity and you’ve failed.” And as the laughter dies down, she unflinchingly continues, “My friends are stranger and my children are sad and unforgiving.” It’s a perfect example of the dark comedic wit at the heart of the play, revealing painful truth with laughter. She’s deftly manages to be a bitch, while also the play’s champion. As she marches off the stage towards her new future, the audience applauds her exit, cheering for the unlikely hero.