'Tis the season for family love and family strife, and the Gallery Players capture both in their winning production of Christopher Durang's classic play The Marriage of Bette & Boo. The most autobiographical of Durang's works, Bette & Boo twists and skewers the trappings of marriage, children, and domesticity, yet somehow still manages to exult in them. Sweet, childlike Bette wants nothing more than to have babies, and lots of them. After her first son, Matt, is born, however, she and Boo discover that her RH-negative blood will endanger the lives of any future children. Undeterred, Bette presses on even as Boo plunges into alcoholism and Matt withdraws further into himself. She has four more babies, all of whom die at birth.
As the play leaps back and forth over 30 years between 1940 and 1970, Matt revisits his parents' lives in an attempt to piece together his own history. Told in "33 short scenes," the play works as a scrapbook of his childhood. With each glimpse, we discover a new piece of the puzzle, and how or why or even where it might fit into the larger picture becomes a challenge for the audience as well.
In the beginning, Bette and Boo marry in an idealistic haze of wedded bliss, but the dysfunction of their families immediately portends a less than happy ending. On Bette's side, her domineering mother, Margaret, overbalances her father, Paul, who can do little more than stammer unintelligibly. Boo's father, Karl, on the other hand, talks incessantly. He is also a mean drunk, slurring his words as he constantly tosses toxic jabs at Boo's mother, Soot, who only giggles hysterically in response. Bette's sisters have problems as well: Joan is cruelly sarcastic and perpetually pregnant, while Emily is immensely self-critical, and her delicate nerves take her in and out of mental hospitals as well as a convent.
Durang's brilliance lies in his ability to be simultaneously cruel and bitter, and tender and hopeful. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners become dangerous domestic battlefields, but a final moment between Bette and Boo rings with poignancy.
Director Heather Siobhan Curran locates the essence of Durang's potent blend of tragedy and comedy, coaching fine performances from her cast. At times the pacing becomes erratic, however, and absurd gestures that might be further extended feel rushed. The mothers, in particular, would be better played more over the top, because the high absurdity of their personalities only balances and adds to the very realistic pathos of Bette's situation.
Erin Kate Howard's Bette is the heart of this production, and she deftly captures the character's sweetness, determination, grit, and fragility. "I love cute things," she explains to her friend Bonnie in a late-night phone call. This is a shining moment for Howard, who reveals Bette's desperation as she attempts to reach out to someone