As the novelist Joseph Heller observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” And as the three characters who barely survive Theresa Rebeck’s twisting and twisted thriller, Downstairs, demonstrate, paranoia is merely one indication that someone you know could be harboring bad intentions. Other warning signs include psychopathic tendencies, the inability to separate reality and fantasy, and sheer, anesthetizing dread. Maybe your workmates are dispensing poison, or your husband is not the man you thought you knew, or your sister has had enough. Maybe that pipe wrench would be an effective blunt instrument. Or, maybe it’s just all in your head. Rebeck and her stellar cast keep us guessing through a tense, intermission-less hour and 45 minutes, while simultaneously pondering larger questions involving inheritances of both the genetic and financial variety.
“Camouflage: to be in plain sight, but not to be seen” is the undercurrent of Cal in Camo, about a family dealing with grim challenges. At the heart of the play are a husband struggling to provide for his wife and child; the wife who has little, if any, affinity for her newborn; and her backwoods brother, a man of few words, whose own wife has recently drowned. Given the somber plot, Cal in Camo is often surprisingly humorous, with actors who reach deep to pull out emotionally charged performances.
David Harbour plays Tim, who is languishing in a small Illinois town as a distributor of craft beer. His wife, Cal (Katya Campbell), is a stay-at-home mom. Their arguments may resonate as typical, but the writing by William Francis Hoffman delivers the stories wrapped in a unique casing. Relish the amusing moments, because Cal in Camo is a gut-wrenching play. The topic of Cal’s brother Flynt, his behavior at their wedding two years earlier, as well as his upcoming visit, is fodder for intense, fast-paced dialogue.
When he arrives, Flynt (Paul Wesley) just peels away another layer to the family secrets. However, it’s Wesley’s perfectly stilted delivery of Flynt’s simplistic view of the world that is bold: “You wanna bond with that baby...you take that baby dirty as she is....diaper dirty....you…strip her down...and you strip yourself down…and you get down on the ground you wrap your whole body around that baby….even though you might not know what you’re doin’ at all...that’s nature...nature knows what ta do.... like water knows where ta go...you just gotta let it find you.”
Campbell’s Sybil-like performance is striking; on one hand fighting with Tim, her unmotherly response to the cries of her child juxtaposed with her schoolgirl excitement to see Flynt. The reveal of their mother abandoning them and Cal’s experience in and out of foster homes is telling: “The way I grew up in all those different homes with all those different families...you learn not to want...you keep your eyes in front of you...if you don’t want they can’t take anything away from you if you don’t need they can’t break your heart…but I got caught up in this idea this picture of family this thing you had and I started to believe it.”
Harbour takes Tim's lack of trust to a new, in-your-face level—the performance is solidly Harbour. His sheer size next to Campbell takes on a brutish, commanding figure, and his resentment being dragged to rural Illinois by Cal is evident in every gesture, as well as everything he doesn’t say.
The opening scene with Cal on the floor attempting to pump her breasts of milk feels like it was put there for shock value. In that regard, it steals the thunder from the scene of Cal and Tim fighting about her inability to produce milk, which requires them to purchase formula.
Once Tim arrives home to the family kitchen, complete with sliding door to the backyard, John McDermott’s set design works harder. With Flynt standing on the porch, having just walked out of the kitchen, the set rotates, and he is standing on the back porch. Grant Yeager delivers crisp lighting design and, coupled with sound design by Amy Altadonna, creates the perfect storm scene. Altadonna’s baby cries are spot-on, whether through a baby monitor, from the other room, or coming from the traveling car seat.
Cal in Camo is meant to be uneasy, and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt makes sure of it. The dialogue is fast and the narrative hard, begging to be heard. Living is in the asking and yet being vulnerable to the answers; that’s where the heart grows. For the actors it is evident that they know the material and they listen; even more important, they respond in kind. The camouflage is ripped aside and the human spirit is revealed, bruises and all.
Cal in Camo continues at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, just west of 7th Avenue) through June 12. Evening performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and at 7 p.m. and Sundays and Mondays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturdays. Running time is 85 minutes. For more information and tickets call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.rattlestick.org.