RECOMMENDEDThat old adage about the strength of family ties is given a careful re-examination in Melissa Ross’ “Thinner Than Water.” Relentless from the start, the play begins with three half-siblings debating whether or not they should tend to their very sick father (a chain-smoking, emotionally unavailable man his children call Martin instead of Dad). Taking affront to this imposition is the oldest sibling Renee (played perfectly by Lynda Newton) who bitterly (and quite accurately) predicts that she will be the one left doing all the hard work. Cassie (Brittany Burch, who wisely plays her character with more edge than vulnerability) and stoner Gary (a very good Michael Patrick Thornton) are more forgiving of the old man and are willing to go out and “win the better person award.” Also in this mix is their father’s current girlfriend Gwen (Donna McGough), a seemingly flighty, non-stop talker. In between dealing with this sudden drama, the three siblings also confront struggling relationships and their own limitations with intimacy and trust.
There is a lot to like here, including the smart and insightful script. A two-act play, the first nicely sets up the more emotionally intense second. It is raining throughout most of the play and in the end water leaks through Renee’s roof and helps guide her into making a big decision. This metaphor can be aptly applied to her two other siblings as well as they both ultimately grow in the face of a family crisis (even if they are slow to realize that this is in fact a family crisis). Like the humor and drama of the play, events here develop and then resolve in a very naturalistic way.
The cast is exceptional and uses the intimate setting of the Gift Theatre to their great advantage. Intimate theater like this can be fairly unforgiving but the acting here leaves nothing requiring forgiveness. Ensemble members Paul D’Addario (Renee’s husband Mark) and Gabriel Franken (Gary’s slacker friend Benjy) provide appropriate measures of righteous anger and comic relief. McGough is also excellent, stealing the closing scenes with her superbly delivered insights.
Director John Gawlik stages these performances well and also handles pacing nicely. Coming in at a little over two hours, the play feels shorter and remains unencumbered by the heaviness of the subject matter. I could have done without the crazy, over-the-top elevator music played between most scenes as well as the projected images which distracted more than they enhanced the plot (does the audience really need to see an image of a coffee shop to understand that the characters are in one?). Otherwise, this is a very well thought out and entertaining production that at the very minimum will make you feel better about your own family. (Noel Schecter)
Gift Theatre, 4802 North Milwaukee, (773)283-7071,thegifttheatre.org. $20-$35. Through May 25.