A Good Smoke
written and directed by Don Cummings
Chandler Studio Theatre Center, NoHo
through March 30

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Parental authority often throws that timeworn adage in children’s faces. They are doing their damndest to motivate, but their unflinching control may cause catastrophic results. If one manages to break away from the rest of the family, and relocate, say, to the West coast from the East, total independence is tenuous at best. Such is the case with Dave, an environmentalist (Henry Gummer) who revisits his monstrous mother Joyce (Barbara Gruen) during one of her recurring bouts of illness in Don Cummings’ staggeringly real dramedy A Good Smoke.

The minute Joyce’s problem rears its ugly head, most of the family rallies to her - such is the power of her apron strings. No one can escape her. Like Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Joyce brays and complains tirelessly. Unlike Martha, it’s not about a sexless husband, but instead about her aches and pains. They’re caused from either fibromyalgia or pancreatitis. Doctors seem baffled by her symptoms and have put her on prescriptive drugs including morphine that make her as much an emotional as a physical wreck. Joyce blames it all on her mother’s incessant abuse; she was hit repeatedly as a child, and that trauma has damaged her. What is so sad is that without realizing the full extent of her actions, she continues the vicious cycle. Son Joey (Blake Anthony) caters to her every whim, but cannot seem to find himself. Without love or a plan of his own making, he is trapped, as is the father (Dennis Delsing), who drinks to bear his sorrow. There is also a daughter, Susan (Madelynn Fattibene) who has just given birth and is fretting over her newborn child’s slowness to nurse. Joyce is too caught up in her own world to visit and help Susan, to the disgust of Dave, who is at continuing odds with his mother’s negativity. Mother’s presence is still felt strongly, though, as Susan wrestles with naming her child Joyce.

To quote Eleanor of Aquitane in William Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, “every family has its ups and downs”. This family’s entrapment is tragic, but not without many comic undertones, as dysfunction and dark humor go hand in hand. Everyone can relate to at least one problem, and the familial plight is so pathetic at times, especially Joyce’s, that laughter seems a better medicine than tears. Cummings does well to cut away from the mother’s agonizing abuse and intersperses scenes that serve as comic relief, such as at a local bar where the 3 men get drunk and then stoned in the parking lot behind. It is here that Dave poetically describes the beauty of an old crabapple tree on the property. This beauty does not preclude the destructive quality of nature and intelligently opposes the human element of control over it, once more control, which remains at the thematic core of the play.

The ensemble is solid. Gruen is outstanding in her brutally honest portrayal. Her lonely conversation on a cell phone to a voice machine as she cleans the house at 5am is monumentally engrossing. Her ferocious attack on lines like “Pull it together, Susan!” is drop dead hilarious. Gummer lends the complicated Dave, who is the spokesman for the playwright, a dynamic focus and compassionate sensitivity. Anthony adds the right touch of bewilderment, and Fattibene is gutwrenching in her deep need to mother her newborn. Delsing creates an appropriate wimp of an alcoholic husband, and Mary McBride adds color as the caring, yet “all business” mother-in-law.

Cummings stages the piece on the small Chandler stage with the utmost dexterity. The title A Good Smoke refers to the family’s addiction to cigarettes, and at play’s end, the bleak, silent freeze-frame portrait of the typical American dysfunctional family lighting up makes us simultaneously laugh and cry.

5 out of 5 stars