Lee Blessing's "Independence" is a strong example of the old-fashioned well-made play. Characters are brought together in the single setting, a living room-dining room, and allowed to tell their story. Blessing is an expert at ensemble drama, but his script also reveals the weaknesses of this genre.
Theatre in the Round's production, masterfully directed by Leah Cooper, finds the twisted heart of this family drama and ends up creating a complex and satisfying theatrical experience.
Kess, a college professor from Minneapolis, returns to her mother's home in Independence, Iowa at the urgent behest of her younger sister, Jo, who claims their mother, Evelyn, tried to kill her. Four years ago, Evelyn threw Kess out of the house when she came out as a lesbian. Pathetic Jo takes sole responsibility for mentally ill Evelyn, since youngest sister Sherry is planning to pack up and leave as soon as she graduates from high school.
Over the next two acts, two generations of bitter grievances are aired and resolved. The single set is effective in concentrating the passions, and Cooper is very effective in keeping the action moving. She also injects a good portion of humor to leaven all the family dysfunction.
But the limitation of the genre is its lack of action. By the middle of the second act, the characters' continual talking about their feelings becomes interminable. And the play is ultimately too tidy. All the pieces of the messy family dynamic are tied up far too neatly.
In the end, it's the strong ensemble cast makes that makes the drama deeply affecting. Rachel Flynn's Kess is the emotional center. She tries to create a family where none exists, all the while communicating the pain of family homophobia.
Evelyn lives in her own fantasy world and strikes out when it's threatened. Jean Wolff does not stint this selfish self-absorption, but she makes the monstrously manipulative character a source of genuine compassion and pity.
Emily Dussault gives Jo a nice manic edge, which becomes a source of both comedy and desperation. As slutty Sherry, the "Queen of Meaningless Sex," Rachel Austin gives a bold and outlandishly funny performance.
Evelyn defines family as "destroying yourself willingly for what comes after." Together Blessing and Cooper successfully capture that dark reality.