Parasite Drag -- Theater Review

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In "Parasite Drag," Mark Roberts continues his examination of the dark side of small-town life in Illinois. Another Roberts play, the deliciously black "Rantoul and Die," covered some of the same territory last year, but in a more comic and exaggerated style. "Parasite" indulges in no such blandishments, and the result is an unsparing look at truly miserable and often unpleasant people.

Once again, we meet a couple whose marriage has reached its expiration date. As the play opens, Joellen (Mim Drew) has just slugged her mild-mannered, sexually inadequate, devoutly Christian husband, Gene (Robert Foster), because he objected to her smoking pot in the hospital with Gene's dying sister. As they continue to argue, it's apparent that the marriage has been dead for years, if it ever was alive. Pushed to the limit, Gene finally says, "I wash my hands of you," and it's hard not to sympathize with his plight.

In the next scene, Gene's estranged brother, Ronnie (Boyd Kestner), and his wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), pay an unexpected visit. We can sense a train wreck in the making as Ronnie is an uneducated, foul-mouthed bully -- with a bad case of hemorrhoids to boot -- almost too obnoxious to bear. He goes out of his way to antagonize Gene, and Gene finds subtle ways to reciprocate.

Gradually it becomes clear that both men have been badly damaged by parents whose behavior ranged from the cruel to the criminal to the psychotic. The dying, misbegotten sister is another casualty of this nightmarish family. But whereas Ronnie has learned to ventilate his anger and spit life directly in the eye, Gene's anger is largely repressed or submerged in religious beliefs he clings to for dear life.

If the impression to be gained by all this misery and bleakness is that sometimes people are damaged beyond repair in childhood, fair enough. But if you're going to present your characters warts and all, it's best not to show us just the warts. There has to be more to these characters than the playwright is telling us -- forget about a drop of forgiveness -- in his desire, perhaps, to exorcise the demons they embody.

Roberts writes the sort of pungent dialogue actors love to speak, and the cast, under David Fofi's direction, brings his words passionately to life. Although too much of the drama relies on swapping stories, there's no denying the intensity and brutal honesty of the writing or acting.

There's a touching coda at the end of the play -- after a gut-wrenching climactic scene -- that underscores what appears to be the drama's central point. Captured in home movies, we see the smiling, playful, innocent children these characters once were -- or could have been -- and we're moved to wonder how their lives could have gone so wrong. One could think this of course of any story with an unhappy ending. But in this case, the contrast is heartbreaking.

Venue: The Elephant Space, Hollywood (Through Sept. 18)
Cast: Robert Foster, Mim Drew, Boyd Kestner, Agatha Nowicki
Playwright: Mark Roberts
Director: David Fofi
Set designer: Danny Cistone
Lighting designer: Joel Daavid
Producer: Lindsay Allbaugh
In association with: Don Foster
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