ONE IN A MILLION
Rabid theatergoers who often attend plays are akin to miners panning for gold: The drudgery and disappointment from months of discovering rocks is dissipated when a precious nugget arrives. One in the Chamber is one such gem. Writer/director Marja-Lewis Ryan has crafted a harrowing account of a normal American family torn asunder by an avoidable fratricidal tragedy involving a single gunshot. This expertly crafted play has as its fulcrum a social worker who arrives to interview family members to see if the accidental murderer is prepared for parole release. One of the most startlingly adroit casts in memory takes us on a journey that elicits chuckles, gasps, tears, and devastation. What could easily have been an issue play about guns in America instead plumbs the depths of a family’s transition from normalcy into unmendable and inconsolable grief, much like Miller’s All My Sons. The heavy subject matter is buoyed by staggered introductions of characters whose presence jolts the action to a new level. Except for a precocious 7-year-old (played with stunning, electrifying accuracy by Fenix Isabella), the tragic family member’s fragile patina of normalcy is cracked open by the social worker’s seemingly simple interrogation.
For her first directorial effort, Ryan’s naturalistic staging is surprisingly affecting, but I am left to wonder if an outside hand could have saved energy-dropping moments from occurring (a mother scanning a scrapbook, a son’s frozen stance). The dialogue is blindingly real, straying from any poeticism, so it’s the poetry of the performances that make it shine.
Heidi Sulzman embodies locomotive defensiveness as the matriarch, Helen, and Robert Bella beautifully mingles wistfulness with patience as the patriarch, Charles. Kelli Anderson personifies the archetypal adolescent spitfire—bright, rebellious, and misunderstood—but manages to win our empathy. Making a late appearance, Alec Frasier’s cameo as the teenaged paroled killer, Adam, becomes a portayal of eternal momentousness almost too painful to watch—his niceness belying a gut-wrenching anguish.
While these actors have tiny moments of incongruity, it is Emily Peck as the social worker, Jennifer, who offers the most breathtaking performance. The emotional impact of this family’s crisis is seen through her eyes as she tries valiantly to navigate the choppy waters of this two-headed family dynamic. Her every reaction—whether a startled glance or sympathetic nod—is entirely organic, offering raw vulnerability and helpless shock.
Michael Fitzgerald’s representational kitchen area and entryway is awash with the detritus of an all-consuming American family: From cereal boxes to laundry baskets, the props—along with the actors’ relationship to them—are remarkable.
Sadly, the play’s extended run ends this weekend, but it’s hard to imagine no afterlife for this exceptional portrayal of a troubled family, which also hammers home the complexity of the Second Amendment—a text which offers freedom to Americans while imprisoning us at the same time.
photos by Chelsea Coleman
One in the Chamber
in association with Theatre Planners
6201 Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood
ends on September 7, 2014
for tickets, call 310.469.9988 or visit Plays411