The Short Version: an Irish family deals with the return of their eldest daughter after her suicide attempt at school in London.
The Review: I realize that my summary is a rather succinct and curt assessment of the plot… but also the most accurate way to describe it. There isn’t really anything else to this play than that plot – or, really, the family dynamic that springs from it. And this play is definitely a family play. It is an impressive one, although not a great one.
The impressive thing about this play – Caldwell’s first play, as it turns out – is the way that the family dynamics are expressed. We’ve all seen the family plays that are terrible and we’ve all seen the ones that are amazing. August: Osage County and the works of Eugene O’Neill & Sam Shepard are the most immediately acknowledged amazing ones – there are too many bad ones to count. This falls somewhere on the Letts/O’Neill/Shepard side of the spectrum although it isn’t fully realized enough to join that elite pantheon. The most promise that this play shows is when it lets the characters – especially the three sisters – just talk. They talk as children do – too much, sometimes without thinking, often with more emotion than even they realize. The youngest sister, Poppy, is trying to comprehend her sister as she approaches her twelfth birthday – the beginning of the biggest transitory stage of a kid’s life – while the middle sister, Clover, is trying to reconcile the image of Lori as older sister and pal to this person who has come back to her as someone different, someone damaged and shaken.
The adults aren’t wildly well drawn – their parts, I think, would be better served in the playing; their pauses and inability to find the right words would be shattering in reality but on the page seem a bit cliched. There’s also a strange “Act Three” that feels a bit tagged on, where we flash back to three months prior: right when Lori was leaving for school. It’s a beautiful early autumn moment of a family that loves one another, communicating and sharing and being happy – and it does have a nice echo to the last scene in Act Two, where the family for the first time starts to connect again and realizes that things will be okay someday soon. But it felt a little odd… because Caldwell intentionally leaves out any reasons why Lori tried to commit suicide. There’s conjecture to be had, certainly – and what undergraduate (ed. note: well, any undergraduate who actually took a risk in their choice of school. Those who go on to “high school, part two” are not included in my discourse here) hasn’t had that moment of utter, all-encompassing depression and terror at the life you’re supposed to be leading at college. “Big fish, little pond” to just another face in a crowd of people just like you…. yeah, it’s enough to drive you to depression. I had my moments of depression freshman year – breaking up with my high school girlfriend, wondering how I’d ever fit in in this new place that I thought I’d always wanted to be in but now realized was more than I ever anticipated. Just like Lori, I had a happy home life – just like Lori, I gave a lot of serious thought to the issues of the world – just like Lori, I wanted to make my mark! So why did she try to commit suicide and I didn’t? That’s the question I was left with… and it’s what made me keep thinking about the play after I finished it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Some interesting staging possibilities and one of the best looks into the realities of family life and how an unexpected moment can make a family completely change their outlook on one of their own makes this a good play. But cipher-like parent characters and a somewhat too-long (especially with that Act Three) feel make the play only barely above average. Still, if for the fact that I understood how Lori felt and want to see this story told, it bumps up a half-star. There’s something here – perhaps for me to direct someday.