Much of the existing coverage on Tony Glazer’s Stain has, unsurprisingly, focused on its shock-worthy dialogue and disturbing themes. Amidst an effectively written story that forces the audience to digest one harrowing twist after another, its politically conservative set of characters elicit uncensored racism, uninhibited sexual conversations between parents and children, and suppressed secrets that, when brought to the surface, are accompanied by verbal abuse. But while the work is tough to watch and occasionally forces an audience member to wonder how much of its allure is due to its degree of shock value, Glazer’s drama offers a beautifully paced, convincingly performed stage experience.
Directed by Scott C. Embler of Vital Theatre Company, Stain opens with a father-and son exchange that immediately reveals both the disconcerting lack of boundaries in its family relationships and a sense of underlying dread. Fifteen-year-old Thomas (played with a haunting sense of awareness by Tobias Segal) is spending weekly father-son time with Arthur (Jim O’Connor), who has divorced his mother a few years prior. As Arthur, sitting on a park bench, unloads his uncensored revulsion towards women and minorities upon his son, gunshots can be heard in the distance. Neither one reacts.
Thomas reveals to his father, with both surprising lack of shame and a suppressed sense of neglect, that his relationship with a much older woman, Carla (Karina Arroyave) has recently ended. Soon after the graffiti-stained brick wall of the park opens up into Thomas’s family’s home, Carla shows up at its door and announces to his mother (Summer Crockett Moore) and grandmother (Joanna Bayless) that she is pregnant. What follows is Thomas’s desperate investigation into the reasons behind his parents’ divorce, setting off a chain of revelations that soon make his impending teen fatherhood seem like the least controversial aspect of the play.
Stain’s structure of a family tragedy in which the audience’s initial impressions are flipped upon each unveiled secret is certainly familiar in theater; Glazer’s use of dark, verbal humor, meanwhile, adds a sense of much-needed buoyancy to his work that reminds one of films like Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down. Characters in Stain make jabs about the power of Botox, women’s sexual needs and the uncool-factor of the rock band Nickleback; a particularly humorous bit pokes fun at the frustration of voice-activated customer service lines.
It’s Tobias Segal’s performance, however, that brings authentic vulnerability into a story that sometimes feels too deliberate in its execution. While with his parents, Thomas speaks in a hoarse, singsongy voice that reveals a desperate need for affection; while smoking with his friend George (Peter Brensinger) on a makeshift bench, he appears to both escape behind a facade of rebellion and momentarily take control of his social role. Like a real teenager, Segal shows the rehearsed nature of Thomas’s sporadic confidence by fiddling his hands in his pockets or twitching his leg under the table. When he tells his grandmother that feeling the area around him helps him think, or wonders if his father is embarrassed to look at him, his heartbreaking narrative becomes almost tangible.
Joanna Bayless, Summer Crockett Moore and Jim O’Connor also deliver believable, multilayered performances as Thomas’s disjointed family. As his mother Julia, Moore has a particularly challenging narrative to carry, and her decision to internalize much of her character’s moral struggle appears to have been the right one; one can only hope that most actors tackling Julia’s character would find it difficult to recognize themselves in her horrific secret.