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A CurtainUp Review
Blood From a Stone
By Elyse Sommer
The domestic war Bill and Margaret, the couple living in this cluttered and deteriorating home in a Connecticut factory town, have been waging is as endless, painful and irresolvable as our never ending conflicts in the Middle East. If a star ranking system were applied to dysfunctional family dramas, with one star for mildly dysfunction upped to five for situations extreme to the point of violence, Blood From a Stone would handily rate 5 stars. Since the unhappily undivorced Bill (Gordon Clapp) and Margaret (Ann Dowd) managed to stop fighting long enough to have three children, their hostilities have rippled, most devastatingly so to their sons.
Actually, it's Bill and Margaret's oldest son Travis (Ethan Hawke) who's at the center of Nohilly's play which even Hawke's and the ensemble's committed performances can't save from its often flawed dramaturgy. Travis has distanced himself from the family, first as a Marine (though not specifically named, probably during the Gulf War) and later in New York. Unable to settle into a job or a long-lasting relationship, he's hardly a poster boy for an exemplary life style. Yet he is essentially a very decent guy who's deeply devoted to his mother and cares about his siblings — even Matt (Thomas Guiry), the screw-up younger brother — a chronic liar, gambler and most recently an adulterer ready to leave his wife for another married woman.
The opening scene finds Travis home for a visit before embarking on a cross-country trip. The semblance of a beginning, middle and end plot, plays out over five days shortly before Christmas, with Travis finding himself trying to keep the family's latest crisis from a total meltdown. Thus each scene is a one-on-one between Travis and a family member, and once with Yvette (Daphne Rubin-Vega), his sexy high school sweetheart now married (also unhappily) and living next door.
The general volatility of this family, especially Bill's bi-polar bursts of violence, are exacerbated by the latest crisis caused by Matt's latest and most serious troubles caused by his addictive gambling and reckless methods of dealing with his debts. You can therefore expect not just lots of cussing (Nohilly outdoes David Mamet with the F word) but plenty of blood. That's the real, red stuff. However the blood of the title, alludes to Travis's efforts to keep a lid on the latest disasters from exploding, which given the extent of Matt's missteps is akin to drawing lifeblood from a stone
Grim as all this sounds, there are some moments of dark humor. And for all the yelling and physical violence that does little to make these people particularly likeable or interesting, Mr. Nohilly has somehow created a convincing and at times poignant enough picture of their despite-everything kinship bonds.
Hawke gives a terrifically layered performance as Travis. Though he's the star box office attraction, the entire cast is very fine. There's an especially affecting scene between Travis and his sister Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), the only member of the family who's managed to have a stable life, apart from her parents yet remaining connected enough to have her children provide the one source of joy in their joyless lifes. Travis' surreptitious fling with Rubin-Vega's sexy Yvette is both amusing and touching, with Rubin-Vega making the most of a cameo role.
The playwright knows his blue collar environment (like so many debut plays Blood From a Stone is admittedly semi-autobiographical). Bill and Margaret and their children evoke echoes the Tyrones of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night , Sam Shepard's brothers in True West and The Late Henry Moss (one of whom Ethan Hawke also played during the Signature Theater's Sam Shepard season); and the more recent dysfunctionals populating Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. Travis's longing to break away reminds one of Chekhov's Prozorov sisters yearning to go to Moscow and a more fulfilling life.
The problem, and as already stated this is a flawed play, is that the script is too self-indulgently long and yet leaves too much crucial information unexplored. We never learn just why Bill and Margaret hate each other and why in the world they stay together yet apart in the delapidated house, especially since both seem to have found companionship outside the marriage. Director Scott Elliott, who's nurtured this work since a play reading several years ago, is to be applauded for guiding Nohilly to make some much needed cuts since the preview performances which clocked in at over three hours. However, the present two-act, five-scene version is still too clunky, with the scenes showing Bill at his vulgar but less explosive self particularly over cooked — going on too long and clarifying too little
The staging features some nice subtle touches like Bill and Margaret's separate bottles of milk. Derek McLane's set is appropriately depressing and detailed, and the rest of the design team also does good work.
Nohilly leaves the audience to interpret that ending as the finale to a Greek Tragedy or an interlude in an ongoing family saga. I lean towards the latter which leads me to hope that when this run ends, Nohilly will revisit his play in order to trim away yet another 20 minutes. As his playwring skills mature perhaps he could use Blood From a Stone as the jumping off point for a fully nuanced, more tightly structured blue collar family trilogy. I can certainly envision an exploration of what happens in a factory town like this during a major recessions with plants closing, downsizing and outsourcing.