By William Francis Hoffman
Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt
Reviewed by David Roberts
Cal (played with a haunting despair by Katya Campbell) is in a mess. Urban Chicago was the ideal place for her husband Tim (played with a brave vulnerability by David Harbour) to make money pitching beer distributors’ craft brews but not the ideal place for Cal – who grew up in rural Missouri – to live and the raise her new baby. So she moves her family to rural Illinois, agreeing to purchase the last lot remaining in the development that has remained unsold because it is adjacent to a sinkhole. Cal’s mess does not end with her bad real estate decision. She is clinically depressed and suffering from a depersonalization/derealization disorder and a borderline family estrangement disorder. If all of that were not enough, Cal has dipped into the family’s paltry coffers to fly her brother Flynt (played with a passive but resilient sweetness by Paul Wesley) home after the sudden and tragic death of his wife.
Flynt’s entry into his sister’s already fragile family system provides an interesting turning-point in William Francis Hoffman’s “Cal in Camo” currently playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in collaboration with the Brooklyn based Colt Coeur. We learn from Flynt the provenance of Cal’s inability to connect with herself or with others on any significant and deep level. Her disorders can be traced – at least partially – to a fractured relationship with her mother who walked out on Cal and only left this adult-child with the memory of her mother as a “nameless taste.” The world premiere of this new play follows the path of healing for Cal, her husband, her brother, and her child. This healing comes in stages after significant conversations between the members of the family – conversations that include an extended conversation between Flynt and Tim and Flynt’s lengthy monologue in his final conversation with Cal.
These conversations are enriched with figurative language, imagery, symbolism, and other tropes. Some of these tropes are more effective than others and they serve the script best when they are subtle or even elusive. Others – like the ever-present sinkhole (or is it a rabbit hole?) – are predictable and not as satisfying. A vintage rifle, a bullet that was rendering the rifle unusable, a doe (yes, a familiar lyric tumbles from Flynt’s lips), storms, power outages, and a fissure in the new house struggle to take on meaning in Mr. Hoffman’s script. Sometimes a direct and transparent bit of dialogue goes a long way to bring sense and sensibility to a script. One example would be the indication that Flynt has started his healing process just before he leaves Cal to catch a bus home to find his wife’s body in the river that swept her away. Flynt tells Cal, “I don’t need your motherin’…you wanna be a mother mother your baby not me.”
Although the ensemble cast members deliver impressive performances with authenticity and believability, Mr. Hoffman’s script is somewhat less impressive as is Colt Coeur’s Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s direction. The script – though replete with dense text that easily engages the audience – is often less than believable and the character’s traits are not always consistent. And the rising action feels forced at times putting characters in situations solely to provide exposition and not to allow their conflicts to enrich the plot. Ms. Campbell-Holt’s direction is serviceable but rarely stretches beyond the basics. Both – script and direction sometimes border on the pretentious; however, “Cal in Camo” is at times an engaging psychological study of one fractured family system that has abundant connections to every member of the audience.
One looks forward to future collaborations between Rattlestick and Colt Coeur and to Rattlestick’s new season.