“Escape” Towards Happiness

<strong>NIKKI JEE |</strong> Staff Photographer<br>UCI drama students re-enact an average night at the Dawson house in the play “Escape from Happiness.”

NIKKI JEE | Staff Photographer
UCI drama students re-enact an average night at the Dawson house in the play “Escape from Happiness.”

This past weekend, MFA Directing student Rob Salas brought George F. Walker’s 1991 award-winning play, “Escape from Happiness” to UCI. This wild and wacky work depicts one of the ultimate dysfunctional families, and its batty members create the perfect recipe for raw drama and black comedy. UCI’s production stays true to the source material, evoking laughter on a twisted and unorthodox level.

Housed in the intimate Little Theater, the play’s set consists of a quaint yet dilapidated kitchen which is slightly slanted with an uneven foundation, further emphasizing the dysfunction of its topsy-turvy family. The structural layout and lighting effectively set an eerie mood.

The story opens on the impoverished Dawson family, who live in a rough neighborhood. Tom and Nora struggle to get by, raising their three daughters, Gail, Mary Ann, and Elizabeth, with limited amounts of tenderness. All of these characters constantly voice their opinions and needs, and continually fail in their attempts to bridge the gaps in their broken relationships.

Not long after we are introduced to the Dawsons, the police enter the fray. The cops, Mike and Dian, disrupt the household further with their investigation into the beating of Junior, Gail’s husband.

Gail attempts to control the situation, calling a family meeting, but events soon spiral out of control. In addition to the police, drug dealers, a know-it-all social worker, and porn merchants soon clutter the kitchen — where Junior was found in a puddle of his own blood.

The stage came alive with the vibrant personalities of each character. The actors exuded energy — physically, emotionally and verbally, especially in the extreme and quasi-realistic fight scenes. Although a good number of the actors messed up a little on their lines, they tended to professionally make up for the mistakes.

Most of the time, the jokes were delivered at precisely the right moments. The occasional blunt statements written in by Walker added to the humor, almost in the style of a family sitcom.

Nearly perfect in her monotonous, apathetic and sluggish attitude was MFA Acting student Alison Plott, who brings us a comic interpretation of Nora. She vocalizes in a matter-of-fact manner and only does what is required of her — in this case, a good thing. She delivers with a very point-on, snooty demeanor, making her character the most intriguing.

Gail (MFA Nicole Erb), the youngest of the family, cares only for her baby daughter and husband amidst the chaos. Erb was consistent and convincing in her performance, nicely exhibiting the naïve side of Gail. We can see that although she is sometimes sarcastic and selfish, she truly pities her invalid father.

Then out pops the two other sisters, who are just as loony, with their own flaws and virtues. Mary Ann (MFA Erika Haaland) and Elizabeth (MFA Sage Howard) were portrayed with equal brilliance.

Haaland superbly exhibited the clueless, extremely anxious and kumbaya-singing Mary Ann, who relies on her therapist to figure out that she’s at a “crossroads” in her life. Her performance was superb.

Meanwhile, Howard’s acting was a little rigid at first, but she finally flowed, gradually revealing her skills. It was also impressive how her never-ending supply of energy fueled the angry, sexually dominant and workaholic persona.

MFA Jesse Easley took up the character of Tom, the formerly alcoholic father and disappointment of the family, who is now ridden with an amnesiac crippling disease. Easley displays an adorable and convincing act of an invalid, stirring delight and compassion.

The father-son relationships in this play provoked a lot of smiles in the audience. The amateur kidnappers, Rolly (fourth-year Will Cranmer) and Stevie (third-year Issak Olson) possessed good chemistry. In turn, Junior (MFA Ryan Welsh), the pathetic son-in-law, presented the perfect comic relief. Wimpy and uneasy, Junior relies on others to protect him.

The dark humor and sexual innuendo of the script tied in well with the soud design. Ominous yet playfully mischievous music played during the interstices of each scene.

Of course, underneath the comedy, a theme certainly sticks out. ”Escape from Happiness” speaks to everyone about the level of craziness in his/her home. It questions the criteria for a perfect family, and the need for a family, however dysfunctional, to stick together and recognize each unique self within the family unit.

Also, the idea of community is emphasized by the corruption of the local police, though it isn’t as explicitly explored as much as it could be.

By the end, audience members choked with gleeful laughter until they were red in the face. Unfortunately, although the jokes were witty, the play tried too hard at creating farcical comedy. There was an unsatisfying focus on the story, which inevitably waned in favor of the family’s antics. Fortunately, the final scene closed on a good, pondering note.

Overall, it was an entertaining night mashed with profanity, physical violence, and family values. ”Escape From Happiness” offered a good escape — if not towards happiness, then at least to a few hours of laughing out of your seat.