Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The origins of unhappiness are certainly a unique combination for every family. For the one in Ann Adams’s Strange Country, directed by Jay Stull at the Access Theater, mental illness, lack of loyalty, and addiction are the sources that lead to complications between siblings.
The play opens on a one-room efficiency apartment: beer cans, leftover foods and trash are strewn everywhere. The occupant, Darryl (Sidney Williams), is fast asleep on the couch, until his sister, Tiffany (Vanessa Vache), lets herself in. After she puts food in the refrigerator, she assesses the situation and wakes him up by spraying him with Fabreze. Roused from his sleep, Darryl cries: “That shit will give you cancer!” The irony of the line is not lost on Tiffany. Darryl is a slob who seems completely unconcerned with his personal hygiene, the cleanliness of his apartment, or his health. He even confesses that he medicates himself on a steady stream of beer and meds.
Tiffany gently tosses back an ironic barb of her own: “Maybe you’ll eat your dinner one day, rather than drink it.” As Tiffany bangs around the apartment trying to clean up, she orders her brother to go wash up so they can go to their mother’s re-commitment ceremony. This brings on a stalemate.
Tiffany seems abrasive and angry, but underneath her volatile outbursts and no-nonsense demeanor is a woman who really cares about her family. If she didn’t care so much, she wouldn’t spend her morning goading Darryl and trying to do what’s best for her family. This concern extends to her girlfriend, Jamie (Bethany Geraghty), who is stony-faced and avoids eye contact with Darryl. She seems highly displeased with the situation.
At one point in the play, which moves along organically even though the dialogue is a bit stultified in places, Darryl and Jamie find themselves alone in Darryl’s apartment. Darryl is thrilled to discover they are both trying to move forward while simultaneously being moored by addiction. He practically whoops: “You’re the first person who’s made me feel good about myself” and “You’re more fucked-up than me!”
While Tiffany tries hard to keep the family together, Darryl steadily consumes beer. As he opens one can after another, the sound of the initial pop of the tab, and then the fizz of the beer become a soundtrack for his character. Nonetheless, Darryl is like the idiot savant, or the fool in Shakespeare’s plays. For all his slovenly drunkenness, he has wisdom and insight. He’s right on when he says plaintively to Tiffany: “The whole of your life is trying to fix people who don’t want to be fixed. But you cling to it.” He knows her life’s purpose is to stay close to her family and try to keep them together, but he can’t help and doesn’t want to.
Strange Country does a good job of capturing the sadness that is brought on when a family member is suffering from a problem that is too difficult to fix. However, it also explores the complicated idea that what may be good for one person may not be good for another. Everyone has his own way of surviving, and the measures people use may not always be the right ones. For Darryl, this is his way of surviving; it’s his “normal.” Tiffany has another “normal,” a more conventional and socially acceptable one. But she doesn’t seem happy. Although Darryl seems less productive and more destructive, he seems more content with his life and himself. It’s a philosophical conundrum.
Strange Country by Anne Adams, produced by New Light Theater Project, runs until Aug. 13 at 8 p.m. Wednesday–Saturdays at Access Theater(380 Broadway at White Street, in Tribeca). Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and can be purchased online at: http://www.newlighttheaterproject.com.