'Family Masks' reaches out to audience

October 30, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Appropriately enough, when the family plays a game in Splitting Image Theatre Company's production of "Family Masks," the game is charades. It's an ideal choice for this dysfunctional family of six, whose members are often at a loss for the words to express their feelings and are almost always living a charade.

It's also a typical example of the impeccable details in this collaborative movement-theater piece, which premiered at Loyola College in 1989 and is now receiving a fresh and partially revamped airing as the first production in the Theatre Project's new program of residencies for local alternative theater companies.

The charade being lived by the characters in "Family Masks" concerns the mother's alcoholism, which she denies, and which each of her children deals with by adopting a specific role based on those identified in studies of families coping with addiction.

The highly physical movement, directed by Harvey Doster and choreographed by Binnie Ritchie-Holum (who also plays the mother), reinforces these roles. In one particularly graphic example, Shannon Hepburn, who plays the overachieving hero, physically carries both her intoxicated mother and her bulimic younger sister (Suli Holum), all the while assuring her father (Jeff Roberts) that everything's just fine.

The title of the piece is both literal and symbolic. When the family members assume these roles, they wear masks, whose archetypal designs are the work of master mask-maker Willy Richardson. Only in those rare moments when their true feelings cannot be repressed do the actors remove their masks -- a process portrayed as not only difficult, but painful.

The movement is so exacting, it works on a visceral level that is frequently even more effective than playwright Theresa Francomacaro's carefully chosen words. For instance, when one family member strikes another, the blows don't connect; on the contrary, the recipient is usually on the opposite side of the stage -- although he recoils anyway. But in scenes in which family members support each other, such as propping up their inebriated mother, they invariably pretend this isn't happening.

The stunning exception to this handling of fight scenes is a disturbingly forceful, newly choreographed segment, which, significantly, is a fantasy. When the angry, trouble-making family scapegoat, portrayed by Patrick W. Johnson Jr., attacks his mother, the shift to physical violence works because it is occurring in his enraged, troubled mind.

"Family Masks" ends with the recitation of a fairy tale about a family that pretended to live in a perfect, beautiful house, but actually hid in the woods. "Until," the mother says, "the family looked around/And noticed they were not alone./They then decided they didn't have to live that way."

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of "Family Masks" is that, to some extent, it can make this fairy tale come true. By reaching out to an extended family of theatergoers, it reassures them that they are not alone. "Family Masks" exists in that hard-to-find area where art and therapy meet on equal ground. And, judging from the sniffles heard on opening night, it's a powerful place.

'Family Masks' When: Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Through Nov. 8.

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

Tickets: $14.

Call: (410) 752-8558.

*** 1/2

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