Broke-ology at Pillsbury House Theatre

March 11, 2011
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Darius Dotch as Malcolm, James Craven as William, Mikell Sapp as Ennis in Broke-ology. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Broke-ology (Pillsbury House Theatre, through April 10) breaks no new ground.  Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson‘s writing is lovely, but it’s straight forward realism, a father-son drama played in a modest and tidy living room/kitchen.  The designers, led by the estimable Joseph Stanley, have done first rate work but, really, any number of plays would work on this set.  Broke-ology explores an oft-visited theme: Arthur Miller (All My Sons), August Wilson (Fences), Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), and many many others precede Jackson.

Ah, but with good reason: this is primal dramatic material.  William King is in his final weeks.  His sons Ennis and Malcolm may not be able to articulate this but they feel it in their bones and they struggle, in a heart-breakingly inchoate American way, to express… something.  Love?  The word is too mild, too simplistic, but it probably comes the closest.  In this atmosphere, tiny things take on heightened meaning: games of dominoes, small glasses of William’s beloved chocolate milk, old Christmas tree ornaments, snatches of “classic” 70s R&B.

And, of course, memories of Sonia, their deceased but ever (and literally) present mother.  So, yes, we may be in familiar dramatic territory, but Jackson has discovered something important – and fresh – and it animates this very affecting play.

Broke-ology is a playground for actors and director James A. Willams has assembled for us a terrific cast, led first and foremost by the understated but sly and artful James Craven.  Craven’s William is bent, slow-moving, almost blind (the result of the many medications he takes).  He’s sweet, almost goofy, and thus it takes us a while to understand that William is in intense pain and engaged in a desperate final struggle to see his sons, Malcolm especially, established in life.  The scene when he summons the ghost of his wife (played by the lovely and charismatic Sonja Parks) astonishes.  Craven pulls us into this play and never lets us go.  His final moments thrill.

As the sons, Mikell Sapp (Ennis) and Darius Dotch (Malcolm) energize Broke-ology and give it its considerable comic oomph.  Malcolm wrestles with a (seemingly) vital issue: should I stay with my internship and hope that it turns into a real job, or go to grad school?  Ennis is slipping into marriage and fatherhood and is very unsure of himself.  The struggles of young men, in other words, which properly fade into the background as they begin to understand the enormity of what their father is undergoing.  Dotch and Sapp are relatively inexperienced and director Willams teases first rate performances out of them.  I hope they appreciate what he’s done for them (and I hope to see them again).  Excellent work.

This play is sometimes downright frightening.  But it’s beautifully done – a perfect play to take us into early spring.

Recommended.

For more info on John Olive please visit his website.

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