Sunstone Studios follows-up its debut comedy Toil and Trouble with local playwright Michael Lucchesi’s contemporary dramatic thriller Between Two Rivers. Director Tim Kietzman brings the drama to one of the smallest, most intimate stages in town. Lucchesi’s script delves into ancient myth with a contemporary story that explores some basic human conflicts. An AWOL marine returns home in order to take care of some unfinished business. Though the tension between characters feels a bit stiff in places, the central intensity between mother, father, daughter and sons is compelling and provocative enough to serve as an admirably brave journey into the darkness that rests in the heart of the American home.
Lucchesi’s family drama plays out in a secluded rural space. Husband and wife (Scott Sorenson and Anya Palmer) share a few moments together in an unfinished house. She’s paid for it. He’s trying to fix it up. Symbolically, he’s worked really hard to develop the exterior of the place, but the interior is scarcely habitable. They’re getting along, but there’s a distance between them. Before long the two of them are joined by their daughter Eden (Molly Kempfer,) their son their son A.J. (Rick Bingen) and their estranged son Kyle (Brandon Michaud.) Kyle’s appearance is a bit of a surprise. He’s a survivor of the war in Iraq who has returned from one horror to confront another.
Michaud manages a few powerful moments as a man lost in an inner maelstrom that forces him to confront brutality and conflict in and within the home that he had turned his back on in order to join the military. Kempfer makes her Milwaukee theatre debut in a very intricate and sophisticated role. Eden is placed right in the center of the conflict, but Kempfer is not given a whole lot of stage time in which to deliver the complexity of the character. She manages a very nuanced portrayal of someone on the edge of her potential while lost in inner turmoil. It’s a strikingly interesting performance.
Everyone in the family is dealing with some kind of trauma, which adds to the conflict. Sorenson is given one of the more challenging roles in the drama. He plays a deeply conflicted character with a respectable simplicity. Any actor would want to dive into the role of the father in a way that would distort and amplify his inner conflict, but Sorenson avoids that in a very stark performance. Palmer is a powerful presence onstage that throws Sorenson’s performance into sharp contrast. Lucchesi compresses the five characters into a small space where they’re force to confront each other in a way that feels stiff and awkward. The conflict that Lucchesi is exploring is tragically common. It’s difficult to imagine any family confronting it gracefully, so the awkwardness of the dialogue feels more or less natural. There’s little insight into the nature of domestic dysfunction, but that doesn’t mar an otherwise hauntingly unflinching look into the dark corners of the American family.
Sunstone Studios’ production of Between Two Rivers runs through Oct. 24th at Sunstone’s space on 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Sunstone Studios online.