Review: Family Dysfunction is Comically Functional In Strawdog’s On the Greenbelt

I had to look up the Greenbelt in Boise, Idaho, to see if it was a real place—it is. There isn’t a lot written about Boise in ways that other cities are described. Terms like conservative, religious, and homogeneous seem to describe the culture for the most part. Once in a while, a scandal focuses on Boise or the beautiful state of Idaho and then it becomes a footnote that we have to google to remember. Playwright and Strawdog ensemble member Karissa Murrell Myers gives us a portrait of a family mired in grief and guilt that transcends a sense of place in On the Greenbelt.

The wonderful and hilarious Kathryn Acosta plays Jules, the eldest daughter of Alan (Jamie Vann) and Lydia (Lynne Baker). Jules’ brother Jake (Dan Lin) arrives at her apartment to find her swigging gin in the early morning. They are supposed to scatter the ashes of their recently deceased mother and Jules has not been responding. The opening act sets the tone for On the Greenbelt. The dialog is laugh-out-loud funny. Murrell Myers has managed to stir in screwball dialog worthy of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur for adapted for His Girl Friday (1940). Jules and Jake have the rapport of bonded siblings who will say anything to each other. I don’t think that I will ever look at a zipper baggie and a floral tissue box in the same way again. Both characters play the straight man instead of comic relief. It gives the humor an edge that keeps the show from being heavy with dirge-like pacing.

Director Jonathan Barry deftly blends comedy with scenes from a death watch in Lydia’s hospital room. Lynne Baker portrays a character with a sense of humor that reveals her life and her joy in living. Lydia was a rebel who adopted a Chinese boy and raised him in a loving home as if he came from her womb. Jake and Jules are her precious babies.

Jamie Vann and Alexis Ward: Photo by Jenn Udoni/Franco Images.

The blocking is very well done with smooth transitions. It is in the hospital that we meet Jake’s wife Mallory (Jessica Ervin) and she fits right into the family dynamic even though Jules despises her. Ervin plays the goody-two-shoes who feels it is her mission to help people. Her voice is perfect with that country and western ring. Mallory was a “Little Miss Rodeo” pageant winner and carries that still as a great accomplishment that gave her the calling to help. It is easy to see why Jules wants to sock her and cringes at the sound of her name. It is a stellar performance of a foe without self-awareness that they are being a pain.

Jamie Vann as Alan the bereft and guilt-ridden widower is really good. He has the folksy manner that I have come to know from men in the Midwest and the West. He and Jules still mourn Peyton Manning retiring and have some choice words for Tom Brady. He is also more accepting than what someone might assume. He is truly happy that Jules has a “best girlfriend” in the radiant Olivia (Alexis Ward). Alan knows that Jules and Olivia are way more than friends. He wants his daughter to be happy and he knows that happiness for her is with Olivia.

Jules has not come out to her parents as pansexual and one of the most touching scenes is Olivia explaining how hurtful it is to be kept in the closet. Ward and Acosta realistically portray a same-sex relationship with the perceived societal pressure from conservative and religious people. There is also the specter of racism. Jake is Chinese and Olivia is a Black woman. Probably not seen as regularly in Boise. This family is diverse, loving, and dysfunctional like a lot of families. Their dysfunction is magnified by grief but the foundation of the family is love for the most part.

Jessica Ervin and Kathryn Acosta: Photo by Jenn Udoni/Franco Images

I liked a lot of aspects of this production. The staging and direction are smooth and precise. The sets are really inventive but rather clunky to move around. It would be nice to have a scrim wall or a screen to obscure the hospital room rather than pushing it off to the side and then further upstage. Hopefully, they can work out the squeaks of the stage skids and be able to change scenes as smoothly as the actors speak their lines. Special kudos to fight director Sam Hubbard and intimacy director Tristin Hall. There is a surprising amount of action in On the Greenbelt. No movement is wasted or awkward, which can be an issue with smaller stages. The only other quibble I have is that they need to project better in the hospital scenes. The dialog is practically whispered and my hard-of-hearing friend missed a lot of those scenes. I liked this play and think that it will touch a lot of hearts because we can see ourselves.

On the Greenbelt by Strawdog Theatre Company plays through May 28 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets are free (yes, you read that right) but donations are welcome in the quest to make theater more accessible to everyone. You will need to reserve tickets and for more information go to www.strawdog.org Please follow Covid protocols of masking over the nose and mouth and bring your vaccine card or proof of a negative Covid PCR test within 72 hours. Protect the artists, the audiences, and yourself.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.