May 5, 2006

Detailed family drama should keep Pilsen’s EP Theater on Life Support

On the surface, Life Support seems as though it would only be appealing in one of two ways. The play, which runs through June 2, is about a brother and a sister reunited at the foot of their comatose 22-year-old brother’s hospital bed. This kind of plot usually veers off in one of two directions: the General Hospital–esque revelations of superficial drama and absurd entanglements or the Ingmar Bergman–esque revelations of deep-seated issues that lead the audience to conclude that the world is fundamentally a mess. Though both of these genres attract a faithful audience, it takes a lot of skill to make any situation that would suit them accessible to the general theater-going population. Life Support manages to take elements of each and create a carefully crafted presentation of the tension inherent in certain human situations and the ways in which this tension can be dealt with.

The EP Theater works out of a small building in Pilsen. There is a sign on the front door urging the audience to make its way around the bank next door to the back of the building. However, once you enter the miniscule lobby and intimate theater, the immediacy of the play is striking, despite the sparse set. This is the play’s world premiere run, and it is clear that it is very well cared for by this small theater. Writer and director Jason Ewers’s script deals with its difficult subject matter in a way that transcends cliche.

The set is one of the most exciting things about the production. It is designed plainly, with simple line drawings in white projected against the gray back flats to portray everything from a hospital waiting room to a bar, a flower shop, and a gas station. The only constant piece on the stage is a long counter, which, by the end of the play, is piled with all of the character’s emotional detritus: cigarettes, beer, drugs, flowers, and books. It becomes a reminder that no character can get through even a brief period of time without addressing everything they carry with them.

Life Support features only three cast members. Garrett Prejean plays Luke, the oldest, a crystal-meth addict who had abandoned his siblings. Though he holds a job and attempts to comfort his sister and himself, Luke is overwhelmed by his past mistakes and his steady addiction. Erin Shelton plays Linda, the younger sister, who searches for options in what seems conclusively a dead-end situation. The third cast member, Craig Cunningham, plays a variety of character roles. He is spot-on for most of them, especially as a hilarious burnout hanging around town, a nervous florist, and a gratuitous Huckleberry Finn–reading meth dealer whose sole purpose seems to be character exposition.

Though having one actor portray an entire town’s worth of encounters (past and present) seems questionable at times, the message sent by Cunningham’s omnipresence is clarified when he appears toward the end of the play as the comatose brother. The siblings, in their travels around town and recollection of their memories, seem to be seeing aspects of their brother everywhere. Life Support is about addressing one’s past—and the flaws that are always part of it—head on. The presence of so few actual people onstage with so many issues makes this play resonate with crowded problems that continue to echo and resound after they’ve been introduced. The audience thus can’t help but see the buildup of the past in each character because it follows them around the stage.

Though some of the exposition in Life Support is superfluous and a little dragging, the play really succeeds when it gives details about the characters, where they came from, and what they love. Mike, the comatose brother, loved everything British, smoked a pipe, and wanted to be a teacher—these details make the play bounce with tension and humanity. When we get specifics such as “What 22-year-old wants to smoke a pipe?”, the play transcends the cliches of utter sadness or utter drama. Luckily, these moments are numerous, and as Life Support progresses, the viewer becomes more and more invested in the lives of the characters and not just in their wait for inevitable death.