The End of the Tour
Road Theatre Company
Many artists are obsessed with the idea of chronicling the lingering, insistent damage done by growing up in—and away from—a dysfunctional family. This is especially true for playwrights, leaving little new to be explored or problems to be solved in much of the contemporary kitchen-sink drama created over the last 30 years or so.
At least with Joel Drake Johnson’s tragic comedy The End of the Tour, now making its west coast debut at the Road, the setting is the real-life small southern Illinois town, meaning the first surprise is that the play actually takes place somewhere other than in a New York brownstone or a trailer park in the deep South—and whether Mae Pierce and her woebegone family members are tortured Jews or tortured Baptists isn’t even a plotpoint. Why, they may actually be Lutherans for all we know, especially judging from the stubborn midwestern inbred hardheadedness that permeates each and every one of these unhappy characters.
The other thing setting Johnson’s Tour apart from others in the genre is the playwright’s arrestingly literate honesty expressed through his gloriously dark sense of humor, a humor only gleaned from surviving familial dysfunction firsthand and feeling compelled to exorcise it in one’s art. As former smalltime chanteuse Mae (Gwen Van Dam) languishes in bed at a senior care facility recuperating from an injury and preparing to sing a few standards for her zombie-like fellow patients (including a mesmerizing Sylvia Little as an ever-wandering Alzheimer’s patient), her overworked and under-appreciated daughter Jan (Rhonda Aldrich) tries to coerce her long estranged brother Andrew to come home and visit Mae in an effort to alleviate some of their mother’s depression. “At this stage in life,” Mae wisely counters, “I should be depressed.” As written by Joel Drake Johnson, lord knows she’s right.
The problem is that Mae sided with her former husband when Andrew came out in high school, keeping quiet to protect her marriage when his stepdad kicked him out of the house. The thirtysomething Andrew now lives in Chicago with his adoring lover David (Albie Selznick) and is not anxious to return to Dixon, the birthplace of Ronald Reagan, sardonic proof that obviously no community is immune to breeding dysfunctional native sons and daughters. As the guys quibble over the benefit of Andrew’s return to the fold, a parallel hetero “couple,” Jan’s ex-husband Chuck (Tom Knickerbocker) and his best hunting buddy Tommy (Michael Dempsey), sit in the kitchen trying to decide if it’s time to put down the ol’ family dog, a question which masks the real question: whether the Williamsons’ marriage is worth trying to salvage.
The biggest problem with Johnson’s End of the Tour is that it has no end. As wrapped up as we get in the lives of these people, due primarily to the extraordinary efforts of director Heather Dara Williams and her remarkably facile ensemble, some resolution would be nice—or at least something left with us to ruminate over in an effort to understand aspects of our own existences. But there’s no healing at The End of the Tour, just confirmation that life not only doesn’t always work, often it downright sucks. No matter how hard all of these people try to make things better for themselves and each other, nothing seems to help.
The effort by the Road Theatre to tell an ultimately unsatisfying story is as committed and impressive as always, from Williams’ incisive staging to the show’s exquisite design elements, and the cast simply could not be better. Gwen Van Dam is riveting as the brassy, belligerent Mae and every one of the actors hovering around her find memorable moments despite the difficulty it must have taken to breath life into such stoic, “cold as a thermometer in December” folks. But although the performances and production values of The End of the Tour makes it a worthy to choice to experience firsthand, Johnson’s short intermissionless play desperately needs a second act when all of these characters’ well-intentioned laboring to make amends with each other might have some satisfying conclusion—or at least offer some clues how they might begin to maintain their own screwed-up adult relationships. Art may be healing here for Joel Drake Johnson, but as for his audience, we can only hope that with a few more years of therapy, be it spent lying on a therapist’s couch or sitting at his trusty computer figuring it all out for himself, the result might eventually be a more satisfying end for his Tour.
End of the Tour plays through Mar. 8 at the Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; for tickets, call 866.811.4111, or visit www.roadtheatre.org for more information.