Tiffany Villarin in The Grown-up.
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Review by E. P. Stewart
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by E. P. Stewart. All rights reserved.
What is the value of innocence? To many in this world, there is none. It is something to be discarded as quickly as possible, a mark of less-than-full participation in life, an excuse for exclusion, or a reason to make others feel small. But to others, it is a precious commodity, a rare gift to be recognized, protected, and cherished.
Enter, The Grown-up by Jordan Harrison, one of the productions in this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. This rollicking twist on a morality tale is as rowdy and action-packed as any young adult pirate novel, yet thoughtful and bittersweet enough to appeal to a more mature audience. (With a love scene, drug references, and some adult language, it’s probably more appropriate for the young-at-heart than the actually young.) This is a show that tells those with some perspective what the value of their own childhood innocence was – and can continue to be, no matter their age or how much time has passed. Kai (Matthew Stadelmann) is a ten-year-old boy listening to his grandfather’s (Paul Niebank) tall tale of how a long-ago shipwreck produced the crystal doorknob that now lives in the door to his grandmother’s linen closet. Whenever
Kai is bored, his grandfather says, he can pop the doorknob off, place it on another door, and open it while wishing to be somewhere else. During a dull game of hide-and-go-seek, Kai gives the magic doorknob a try, tumbling into his own life in the future. He is a successful writer pitching a screenplay in an office in Los Angeles and has no recollection of his previous self, until he spies the doorknob and realizes he must try to go home. So begins a long series of attempts to return to his 10-year-old life, but each time Kai only finds himself farther down the path. Will he make it home? Or, perhaps more to the point, is it ever possible to go back?
Intertwined with Kai’s narrative are those of his little sister (Brooke Bloom) and the young man on the pirate ship (David Ryan Smith) who plucked the crystal from the eye of the “chesty” mermaid on the bow as the ship went down in a storm. These storylines are obviously integral to the plot and contribute some beautiful moments to the storytelling, but their exact purpose is largely unclear. On the one hand, it would be nice to know how the sister travels through time without aging in one scene but is very old in the next, or whether the pirate’s story is supposed to be real, fantasy, or more clearly a combination of both. But on the other hand, this ambiguity is its own contribution, enriching the adolescent confusion of the topsy-turvy world that Harrison has created, where even the constraints of time and space are no longer universal or understood.
Opening night jitters might have been to blame for a few cast stumbles early on, but once the ball got rolling, things went much more smoothly. The audience was hooked enough from the start to graciously overlook any bumps. Like peeling the layers of an onion, each scene unfolds and takes the story one step closer to its inevitable and poignant core. The ensemble does a solid job with the deliciously loopy ins-and-outs of Harrison’s script and appropriately frenetic pace of Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction.
Matthew Stadelmann and Brooke Bloom are well-cast, and -costumed, as the ageless brother and sister duo racing through time, trying to find one another and themselves. Tiffany Vilarin is hilarious as an Adderall-infused executive assistant. David Ryan Smith is wonderful as the brief but wise Mrs. Whatever-her-name-was (the characters can’t remember either) but a little confusing in his main role as the pirate boy. Is he a pirate boy? A first mate’s assistant? A fisherman, in that hat? For some reason, this role is just not clear. His costuming and powerful physical presence makes it hard to believe he is a young boy, yet I thought the script kept saying it. Willing suspension of disbelief is arguably one of the best attributes of live theatre, but in this production it is sometimes difficult to discern when and where to employ it.
On the whole, The Grown-up is an engaging adventure with an enormous heart – if currently lacking somewhat in execution. But like unpredictable, rough-around-the-edges life itself, even this could be seen as part of its charm.
Part of the 38th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
March 7 -April 6, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 East Main Street Louisville, KY 40202