Art of darkness

on an average day is well above
By IRIS FANGER  |  August 22, 2006

Erik Parillo and Robert Kropf
If the New Testament were rewritten for modern times in language that included four-letter words and psychotic outbursts against the inscrutable will of God, the Good Book might read something like John Kolvenbach’s on an average day. The drama, which had its professional premiere in 2002 in London with Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan, layers comic relief into a searing reunion between two brothers — that is, if you’re able to laugh while choking on the taste of bile. Directed by Jeff Zinn, the engrossing New England premiere of the work is at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through September 9.

Kolvenbach’s story of two brothers seems more a parable than a melodrama of life in a dysfunctional family. Bobby and Jack — dare we think of the Kennedy brothers? — were abandoned as children by an emotionally distant father who left the 14-year-old Jack to care for his eight-year-old brother. (Their mother had died earlier.) Some years later, in a repeat of his father’s behavior, Jack walked out on the teen-age Bobby, leaving him to cope on his own. The play begins 23 years later, with Jack returning to their childhood home, where his brother is still living. Although Jack’s intentions are not clear, Bobby shows no surprise at his brother’s reappearance. The title comes from Jack’s refutation of the lies he had once invented about their father to comfort his little brother. “On an average day he left us,” Jack tells Bobby, seeking to destroy Bobby’s distorted memories of distant comfort.

A well-made play with channeling from Sam Shepard’s True West and Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, on an average day revolves around a significant prop and a role reversal. The two brothers have gone in opposite directions since their last meeting, Jack walking the straight and narrow, Bobby becoming an outcast from society. But the tie that binds is a shared darkness. At the end, themes of guilt and redemption echo through Bobby’s forgiveness of his brother’s sins.

Although the plot unfolds on designer Jackie Levinson’s über-realistic set of a scruffy kitchen in a run-down farmhouse in upstate New York, Kolvenbach’s characters are both complex and mythic, mixing innocence and world-weariness. Robert Kropf makes Bobby a wounded animal plunging around the tight stage space like a constrained beast that erupts in a stream-of-consciousness cascade of fear, pride, and disbelief, all of it leavened by a childlike faith in Jack as his keeper. Erik Parillo, as the uptight Jack, gradually sheds his defensive façade to reveal even deeper wounds. These are bravura performances worth the trip to Wellfleet, where WHAT continues its distinguished record of mounting plays that disrupt our complacency.

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