Review by Jan Rosenberg
And you think your family has problems? In 1970’s Galveston Texas, a family gathers together for the first time in years to mourn the death of Grandfather Travis. Surviving widower Ruby (Suzanna Hay) is joined by her son Bobby (played by the playwright, James Wesley), her daughter in-law Cheryl (Lori Hammel), and her two granddaughters Cathy (Stacey Bone-Gleason) and Patti (Juli Wesley). Also there for moral support are Bobby’s distant sister Edna (Anika Larsen) and uber-Christian Aunt June (Eve Plumb). What starts out as a fairly normal dysfunctional family reunion ends up being more devastating than the funeral.
Aunt June is demanding to read her brother in-law’s new will, but Ruby claims it doesn’t exist. June, a bible thumper with a mean streak, is convinced that her brother in-law has left the house to her. Plumb portrays June with enough bite to make us contemptuous of her, while simultaneously making us sympathetic of a woman who is so lonely that she has to bully her blood relatives into submission. While June goes on a wild goose chase for the new will, Bobby attempts to quell his wife Cheryl’s financial worries. Sure, bus drivers don’t make much, and he hasn’t been able to keep the same job for over a year, but Bobby insists that their moving in with his mother is only temporary.
After dinner, a bomb is dropped. Cheryl learns from her eldest daughter Cathy that Grandfather Travis may have been sexually abusing youngest daughter Patti. Ruby, who has never shown much warmth towards her daughter in-law, attempts to excuse her husband’s behavior. She offers Cheryl an ultimatum behind Bobby’s back. As long as Cheryl keeps quiet about Travis’s ‘habits’, she will leave the house to them. Ruby is a fascinating and complicated character, and Hay's performance is emotionally startling. At times she comes off as a martyr and at other times, a monster.
The confrontations that follow leads to several shocking family secrets being revealed, all of which threaten to turn them against each other for good. After a while, the epic load of dirty laundry is a bit unbelievable. But the excellent cast, led by director Jason St. Little, makes up for whatever qualms I had with this slightly melodramatic family saga.
“Unbroken Circle” is a fascinating exploration of how far family members will go to protect one another. How much pain can one family endure, and when will the vicious cycle of abuse end? At times shocking and at others thoroughly heartbreaking, James Wesley’s playwriting debut is indeed an effective one. This fictional family is one you won’t soon forget.
“Unbroken Circle” continues its open-ended run at St. Luke’s Theatre (308 W. 46th St., on the corner of 8th Ave), 212-239-6200, http://www.unbrokencircletheplay.com