The Greenbelt is a miles-long semi-wild park in Boise, Idaho. It is also the place where the ashes of Lydia, the adventurous, devout Christian matriarch of this once-close, now troubled, family were to be scattered near dawn according to her wishes. The action opens in this moving, delicately acted play once the ritual is aborted because Lydia’s adult daughter, Jules, holed up in her apartment having decided to kill off a bottle of gin and stew in a vat of rage instead. Jules’ adopted brother, who is her age, has been close and they have been in each other’s confidence their whole lives, but the death of their mother is tearing them apart. The cause is a bundle of secrets that Jules feels she must keep, but which uproot her relationship with her brother and father, her lover and upend her sense of self.
Lydia (Lynne Baker) has died of a rare and weird genetic malady known as “fatal insomnia,” but the unrest in the family is what propels the drama. Early on, we sense the secrets but don’t know them. By the second act they explode in ways that remake the relationships of everyone in the family, some for better and some full of presumably irreparable strain. “Greenbelt,” now in its world premiere, is smartly written by Strawdog ensemble member Karissa Murrell Myers, whose script captures the mix of pain and comedic banter of a family whose struggle with conflict and grief are moderated by doses of clever conversation, irony and silliness. The strong cast, too, delivers naturalistic characters that give us people that feel highly familiar but who are also individuals playwright Myers makes us care about.
As in families, some of the people drive us crazy with how they confound us, act self-destructively or are unrelentingly angry. The real-life drama in families comes because family life socializes us with people we may not choose as our companions if they were not related, but we fight to stay close to family members nonetheless. When Jake (Dan Lin) appears at his sister’s apartment, angry that she failed to come to the dawn ash scattering, he brings his mother’s ashes with him as if they were a sacred artifact, perhaps with the spirit of Lydia alive in them. To Jules (Kathryn Acosta), they are less than nothing and she wants her brother and the ashes to clear out. The intensity of the conversation, which is about separating, is also about finding on what terms brother and sister can reconnect. As the play goes on, it digs deeper into the family dynamic, exploring who has the power to decide family matters on their own, who can and should keep secrets, and when forgiveness succeeds and fails to heal families. It’s a balancing act for a two-and-a-quarter-hour play but it works. Future productions may trim the dialogue to speed the action, especially in the first act. Some surgery to the script would help it move, but its current length and structure gives the production more room to capture how families work under stress.
The cast and production are generally excellent and make the most of a spare, monochromatic set (which is symbolically shrouded).
“On the Greenbelt,” Strawdog Theatre Company at Links Hall, 3111 North Western, free, but reservations required, strawdog.org. Through May 28.