At the earliest moments of “One House Over” it’s easy to get lulled into the expectations that this Catherine Trieschmann play is a dart in the air flying to the target of Donald Trump and his anti-immigration policies.
As this Milwaukee Rep world premiere, may expand to a flock of darts aimed at America itself, and it’s conflicted steps to create some kind of coherent program for all immigrants to this country.
But in the end, what this wonderful play is about is very simple.
And there is enough of it to infuse each character in this brilliant five-player cast.
Joanne (Elaine Rivkin) is a divorced 50-something violin teacher who lives in a nice neighborhood north of Chicago. Joanne is the caregiver for her 89-year old father, Milos (Mark Jacoby), who emigrated to America from Czechoslovakia just as Hitler was rising opower and casting his evil eye to Milos’ homeland.
Into that life comes Camila Hernandez (Zoë Sophia Garcia), an experienced Mexican caregiver who is hired to take care of Milos and take some of the load off Joanne. Camila and her husband Rafael (Justin Huen) move into the apartment in Joanne’s home.
There is a combustion mix forming right before our eyes and it’s not long before what looks like the ignitor arrives in the person of next door neighbor Patty (Jeanne Paulsen).
The whole tale written by Ms. Trieschmann starts off slow. Very, very funny, but at a pace that seems very patient.
At intermission, I spoke with Ms. Trieschmann and Brent Hazelton, the Rep’s Associate Art Director, who was the dramaturg on this production. I mentioned the pace and said it felt like a “slow burn” was coming.
Mr. Hazelton wouldn’t talk to me because, even though we are friends and he knows how much I admire his work, he is afraid I might quote him someday. But Ms. Trieschmann had no such fear.
“It is a slow burn,” she said conceded with a big smile, obviously pleased with the first act.
The five characters have been finely drawn by Ms. Trieschmann, director Mark Clements and the actors.
Joanne is your basic white liberal, thrilled to have attended the Barack Obama election night victory party in Grant Park in her, and his, hometown. Her fears range from white privilege guilt to a breast cancer diagnosis and fear that her father may be losing her.
Milos is cantankerous and angry over the appearance into his life of a Mexican stranger. He is afraid of the growing ravages of age and his helplessness to care for his daughter when she needs caring for.
Camila is capable and devoted to her Mexican heritage and her “Papi” who was deported after a car accident in Chicago.her driving fear is that she will be deported and that morphs into a fear that she can’t stay in America and she longs for a return to her homeland.
Rafa has never been to Mexico, having lived almost all his life in America and he is driven to making a life as an Italian food chef and is desperate for a break. His hides his fear of failure under a facade of machismo sensitivity,
And Patty is the typical nosy neighbor, concerned about this young couple living in the basement “even though it has nothing to do with them being Mexican.” She has been left alone and is hides her loneliness with a judgmental certitude.
While the various ethnicities are the integral part of this play, the overwhelming response is laughter. The last time I hear a Rep audience laugh this often and this hard may well have been the memorable production of “Noises Off” five years ago.
Ms. Trieschmann shows off her sophistication and maturity as a playwright by giving each of her five characters a dose of laugh lines. So many playwrights who try to write comedies lodge the humor in just a couple of characters and adds a few straight men to be part of the show.
The path of this play takes us through the way increasing intimacy can have such a profound impact on established boundaries.
At the heart of the matter is the move by Milos to a high level affection for Camila, so deep that he tries to make her his girlfriend. Joanne find herself jealous of this emerging depth of affection. Rafe latches on to Joanne as both a caregiver after her mastectomy, and finds she may well be the open door to his climb up the Italian chef ladder.
The humor, both biting and sweet, carries us along as we head for what must be the anticipated explosion. And there is no disappointment in this play. The explosion, born out of ever-increasing uncertainty over all of the jealousy and fear that has led to those crossed boundaries, would be a riot of laughter if we were still not tasting the bitterness of the cruel moments leading to the all gloves-off battle.
Mr. Clements, who has been Artistic Director at The Rep since 23010, continues his commitment to new play development and it pays off with the kind of production you get with “One House Over.” He also shows his chops as an experienced and creative director.In this one, with this play, and with these actors, it’s best to create the freedom for these wonderfully experienced hands to take charge of the whole thing.
Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Kevin Depinet; Costume Designer, Rachel Laritz; Lighting Designer, Jesse Klug; Sound Design/Original Composition, Joe Cerqua; Production Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Dramaturg; Abigail Gonda; Dialect Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Fight Director, Jamie Cheatham; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Casting Associate, Karie Koppel; Stage Manager, Kimberly Carolus.; Production Photographer Michael Brosilow.
Act II – ACTORS
Talking with NMs, Trieschmann during the intermission she couldn’t restrain herself when talking about the cast of five actors who were bringing her words to life, “They are fantastic,” she said. “It’s is amazing to watch them work.” Nobody would disagree with her. This cast was up to the task facing them. The range of emotions faced by each was filled with potential potholes. Ms. Rivkin was alternately grateful, guilty, exasperated, fearful, jealous, lonely, afraid and angry. Ms. Garcia was plucky, in love, passionate, encouraging, angry and fearful. Mr. Jacoby is angry, helpless, hopeless, encouraged and determined, Mr. Hernandez is cocky, discouraged, full of bravado and resigned, And MNs., Paulsen is both arrogant and lonely. All of them are also faced with lots of funny lines and the timing in this group is perfect.
Act III – DIRECTOR
A big part of that timing is a credit to Mr. Clements, who guides this production with a fine and loving hand. Experienced theater goes will understand the concept of loving direction. You can see it in the obvious freedom for actors to dig down on their own to flush out their characters. You can see it in the pace of a production, in this case a pace that allows for the laughs that are sure to come and a story that is told with growing suspense. Mr. Clements has an impressive array of credits for directing productions all over the world and The Rep benefits having him at the helm of several productions each season.
AC T IV – DRAMATURG
Frequently you hear the term “dramaturg” thrown around, but not many people understand the role. It’s a difficult role to define, but in general a dramaturg works to assist the playwright in the development of the play, especially during rehearsals. Frequently a script may change once rehearsals are underway. What works on a piece of paper may need adjustment once you hear and see it with live people. In the case of “One House Over”, Mr. Hazelton acted was the dramaturg and he and Mrs. Trieschmann both said that the final little change in the script took place on the Wednesday before opening night and that the last substantive change took place on Sunday.