Steep Theatre Company. By Nick Payne. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Peter Moore, Cynthia Marker, Caitlin Looney, Shane Kenyon. Running time: 1hr 50mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The title of British playwright Nick Payne’s 2009 work isn’t actually spoken in the script, but it seems a likely response to a line that comes from Peter Moore’s character, George: “There is absolutely a balance.” But you can see in George’s pleading tentativeness that he hasn’t found it yet.
George is obsessed with finding environmental balance, to the detriment of his own work-life balance. He’s thrown himself into his work on a book charting the carbon footprints of what sounds like every feasible human activity; he tut-tuts his wife, Fiona (Cynthia Marker), for buying tinned tomatoes and scoffs at the idea of taking an overseas vacation because air travel would make him look hypocritical.
Yet it might be just as much the idea of unfettered time with Fiona and their deeply unhappy teenage daughter, Anna (Caitlin Looney), that George can’t fathom. His deep dive into work is as much about escaping a home life that feels foreign as it is saving the Earth for future generations. Fiona recognizes this but is afraid to acknowledge it; the friendless Anna endures merciless bullying at school over her weight.
The catalyst for change is the arrival of prodigal uncle Terry (Shane Kenyon), George’s well-meaning younger brother with impulse-control issues on the natural disaster level. He shows up unannounced, having taken off for parts unknown a couple of years earlier after torching the car of an ex’s new boyfriend. Terry drinks too much, nurses unrealistic expectations of reconciling with the ex-girlfriend and has no discernible direction in his life. But importantly to Anna, he listens and takes her seriously the way her preoccupied parents seem unable to.
It’s the relationship between these two, and the question of its sustainability, that drive Payne’s small, tender story: Can Terry help open George’s eyes to his disconnect from his own family? If Anna expects too much from her uncle or comes to rely on him emotionally, what will happen if he flees once again? Jonathan Berry’s production addresses these matters directly and unfussily, with finely detailed performances from each of his four actors. Kenyon in particular fills out Terry’s shambolic features with richly layered nuance.
Yet there’s something slightly, well, off-balance in Payne’s script, the rising playwright’s first. It seems clear enough that this is Anna and Terry’s story—mainly Anna’s, really, with Terry as her agent of change (and Looney, a Columbia College undergrad, does fine work taking her character to some very despairing teenage places). That makes the detours into George’s lectures and book readings feel like extraneous attempts to tie the family’s trauma together thematically with the dangers of climate change—a gambit that doesn’t quite work, and leaves Fiona to appear underdeveloped in comparison.