"The House of Yes," a brave choice for Synesthesia Artist Collective's first production, is powerfully acted and guaranteed to spur discussion (and probably arguments) among those who view it. It's a dark and disturbing look at profoundly damaged people who at first glance don't seem to deserve our sympathy.
Stick with it, though. By the end of the play you may think about class issues in a different way.
The wealthy Pascal clan, beset by alcoholism and mental illness, lives by what author Wendy MacLeod calls "the rules they've invented." The source of their money is never mentioned; the Pascal wealth is like oxygen, i.e., necessary to survival but nothing they ever have to think about. It's just there.
Mrs. Pascal (Lisa Willis) sips wine all day long and requires her college dropout son Anthony (Taran Haynes) to help keep his mentally ill and occasionally violent sister Jackie-O (Andrea Staats) on a more or less even keel. Initially the mother seems like a control freak; ultimately we learn of the need for damage control.
Older son Marty (Austin Roach), who's Jackie-O's twin, has driven through a hurricane to the family's Virginia home for Thanksgiving — and he's brought his finace Lesly (Chloe Akers) along with him.
When Marty announces that they're engaged, his sister emits a full-throated scream that seems to bother no one except Lesly. Everyone else in the room is accustomed to the woman's instability. "Jackie can have her way," Mrs. Pascal says at one point. "She always has."
Her daughter is called Jackie-O because she and Marty are fascinated by the Kennedy family, particularly by JFK's assassination. Since childhood they've played a game of re-enacting the televised shooting, which was playing on TV the day their father walked out.
Other, much darker secrets are also connected to that day in history. While it isn't clear whether those traumas made Jackie-O sick or simply exacerbated an existing condition, what is clear is that this is one seriously messed-up family.
Marty, a tight bundle of nerves, says he's tired of being "above" everything and that he wants to be "a normal human being." That's probably why he fell so hard for Lesly, whose lower-middle-class upbringing could never have prepared her for the twisted didoes of the very rich. (Want to drink nonstop, commit violent acts and drop out of college without being thought of as a failure? Have a lot of money and you can get away with anything.)
Yet as family members drink, snark and guilt-trip up a storm, a funny thing happens: You start to pity them. They wander through their nicely appointed home without plot or plan, unable to think beyond the day. Their money insulates them from the consequences of their actions (and inactions), but it can't buy them a single thing they truly need.
They're repellent, true, but they're lost. They're victims of a system that privileges but also paralyzes them. None of them can imagine living a life outside that privilege. But what kind of life are they living now?
It would be harder to care if the cast weren't as strong as it is. All five performers are superb, showing the humanity under the arrogance and condescension. Even their most appalling acts seem like desperate attempts to feel something, anything, even just for a few minutes.
The emotionally zeroed-out Pascals might make you feel a little better about the size of your own paycheck. But that's not the reason to attend. Go for the powerhouse performances and to challenge your ideas about the class ceiling. You won't like the characters any better by the end. But you'll probably understand a little more about what it means to be human.
Incidentally, there's a sixth character in this show: the Pascal home. Set designer Carrie Yanagawa and lighting designer Erin Campbell have created an elegant yet also dark and airless mansion. One interesting touch is that the upstairs guest bedroom is situated on the stage level, very close to the living room where something dreadful happens. That juxtaposition is squirm-inducing to the audience and reinforces the notion that this family's closeness is pathological.
THE HOUSE OF YES, presented by Synesthesia Artist Collective, will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall Theater. Tickets are $15 at the door.
Former Daily New reporter Donna Freedman writes about personal finance for Money Talks News and blogs at donnafreedman.com.