‘Kennedy’s Children’ recasts ’60s in dark light

Tyisha Turner '12 delivers one of many sophisticated, complex monologues as Wanda, a woman dangerously obsessed with the Kennedys.
Tyisha Turner ’12 delivers one of many sophisticated, complex monologues as Wanda, a woman dangerously obsessed with the Kennedys.

It’s 3 p.m. on Valentine’s Day in 1974. The neon signs in the bar window flicker on and five solitary strangers wander in: a career woman, a flamboyant off-off-Broadway thespian, a war veteran, a wannabe sex goddess and an ex-hippie. With a runtime of almost two hours and heavy-handed subject matter, Kennedy’s Children by Robert Patrick isn’t immediately accessible. But under the capable direction of David Eppel, professor of theater, the student actors resisted the temptation to become one-dimensional archetypes of the ’60s and gave fully realized portrayals of individuals who are all hurting and complex, and it is this personal dimension that made the theater department’s production of Kennedy’s Children compelling.

Speaking entirely in monologues, the actors face a unique challenge: to maintain balance and tempo, character arc and the illusion that this is the first time they’ve spoken the monologue. It isn’t a happy show by any means, and at moments the dark, invasively private tone left audiences feeling a little like the ubiquitous bartender, played by Molly Olguin ’12, a sort of intrusive participant and observer transfixed by the characters’ stories that range between preachy and personal.

As schizophrenic underground theater actor Sparger, Mike Leon ’11 delivered a stunning performance – a tour de force of specificity, complexity and focus. Leon created a unique physicality that combined femininity with flamboyance in a seamless way, serving as a deft comic relief while still capturing the character’s tortured vulnerability, penchant for performance and deep-seated loneliness through its evolution. Leon’s performance was at once deeply personal and universally accessible and left audiences wanting more of Sparger’s story.

Another standout performance was given by the glamorous Holly Crane ’12 as Carla, a wannabe sex goddess whose aspirations at fame have been fruitless. Crane best captured the musicality of Patrick’s writing, whether delivering the elaborate lists that are a symptom of the playwright’s self-indulgence, or simply in the old Hollywood singsong nature of her cadence that was reminiscent of Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe herself. Crane embodied Carla’s progressive drunkenness and nihilism in a darkly humorous way yet revealing that her apparent superficiality masks great wisdom.

Amanda Keating ’12 faced one of the play’s most difficult stereotypes as the aging, angry hippie Rona, bitter at the lack of success of her efforts throughout the ’60s. Keating’s understanding of the personal side of Rona, whose chronological recounting of political events could otherwise be pedantic, was her greatest strength in the role. The sensitivity with which Keating spoke of her washed-up drug-addict husband, and her ability to combine resignation with fierce passion grounded Rona as a true relic of history while still beautifully flawed and human. One of the show’s most vivid moments was Rona’s description of reading banners backwards at peace marches – “War more no!” – as Keating’s face lit up with the idealism and hope that typified the flower children.

The blind idealism of Wanda, played by Tyisha Turner ’12, violated the initial impression that she was the most stable of the characters. While Wanda seemed put together, into the second act it became clear that her obsession with the Kennedys had become an all-consuming fantasy, as she equated Kennedy to Christ and designed her entire life around pursuing the ideals she believed he stood for, a resident in her own mental Camelot. Turner gamely assumed a New York accent for the entire performance, and while not perfect, it was an impressive feat that accentuated Wanda’s lack of sophistication.

Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11 faced a unique challenge as Mark, an unpredictable and unstable Vietnam veteran. Although the other characters in the show confronted the interpretive problem of retelling the story of their change throughout the ’60s while remaining largely static, Basch-Gould actively experienced Mark’s changes as he wrote letters aloud in his diary – some addressed to his mother, and others to Buddha, as he increasingly lost his grip on reality. Basch-Gould’s dynamism was captivating, as he expressed Mark’s transformations from monologue to monologue, and his combination of the comic with the deadly serious provided us with a deceptively complete portrait of an intensely complex and disturbed individual over an entire decade.

While the writing itself could be tedious at moments, Eppel’s clever direction increased the intrigue by creating ambiguity as to what was actually being said aloud and what the characters’ unspoken thoughts were by whether or not they acknowledged each others’ speech and behavior. When the actors moved around the bar during each others’ monologues it could be distracting or upstaging, but it was also an effective tool to ground the audience to the reality of the moment – this bar in 1974 – rather than the elaborate, immersive fantasies they described.

Technically the show was another impressive display of the theater department’s production capacity. The detailed and elaborate realistic raked stage designed by David Evans Morris ’96 fully transformed the black box CenterStage and was notably contrasted with the often surrealistic lighting by Julie Seitel ’94, who washed the actors in reds and green hues as if bathing them in the neon lights that adorn the bar. A delicate rain soundscape designed by Brad Berridge persisted through the background of the show, subtly increasing in intensity and volume with the monologues themselves.

Within Kennedy’s Children we see Patrick’s vision of the private lives of these period archetypes as they overlap for one Valentine’s Day afternoon. In the capable hands of Eppel and cast, these sketches became a vivid and haunting reality.