Curtain Up Review of Cal in Camo

Curtain Up Review of Cal In Camo

 

The premiere of the family drama Cal in Camo, by William Francis Hoffman, is the result of a new collaboration between West Village institution Rattlestick Playwrights Theater—a specialist in heady, challenging theater by emerging artists—and the younger company Colt Coeur. This latter company has built a reputation over the last few years presenting emotionally charged plays, such as 2014’s Dry Land, which focused on an abortion.

True to that mission, tensions run high throughout this new play, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, which depicts a family in the midst of multiple conflicts. Cal (Katya Campbell) finds herself unable to feed her newborn daughter, and her struggles acclimating to motherhood threaten to open a rift with her husband, Tim (David Harbour). Tim, a beer salesman whose job prospects aren’t much better than Willy Loman’s, is in turn being driven to a breaking point by his professional and financial challenges. And their fragile peace is further shaken by a visit from Cal’s brother Flynt (Paul Wesley), who recently lost his wife in a flood.

Hoffman’s style of writing is highly literary, and he relies heavily on the use of physical symbols and natural phenomena to emphasize the nature of the turmoil on display here. (The sometimes volatile environs of Cal and Tim’s suburban home are skillfully rendered in John McDermott’s scenery, Grant Yeager’s lighting, and Amy Altadonna’s sound design.)

With this symbolism, as well as with the strong feelings that permeate the play, Cal in Camo walks a fine line between subtlety and overt display. The balance this production achieves between the two is, for the most part, sound, though it can too readily equate shouting with passion. That said, Campbell-Holt and her performers—Harbour, especially—have done a commendable job parsing through Hoffman’s script, which is completely unpunctuated and largely devoid of emotional cues, in order to create characters that feel lived-in, if not always entirely real.

Campbell’s Cal evinces tremendous vulnerability as well as fierce combativeness. She deploys the latter to compensate for the former, and risks hurting those she loves in the process. Tim has a natural sense of humor that he employs as a coping mechanism in both his professional and home lives; Harbour inhabits the role fully and comfortably. Flynt feels a bit more artificial than the others, as his character awkwardly stumbles into bouts of profundity, but Wesley’s performance is smooth and sensitive.

Meanwhile, another balancing act, between mysteriousness and opacity, trips up the play a bit more. Hoffman drops plenty of hints about the pasts of these characters—we know, for example, that Tim’s family didn’t approve of his marriage to Cal and that he had never left Chicago until they got married, and that Cal and Flynt grew up parentless—but (pointedly, it seems), there are gaps as well. You want to know anything about how Cal and Tim, whose sharply distinct personalities make them feel like they operate in different universes, met and came to be married. It’s hard to imagine what their relationship was like before their daughter was born, even though so much hinges on this shift. It also seems like both of them had gripes with Flynt that go unexplained.

As a result, despite the intimate window this play offers onto these characters at their most vulnerable, they somehow always feel like strangers. Their mysteriousness may be an intentional product or simply a result of the characters being means to the author’s end; either way, it can obfuscate the action of the play, or at least distance us from what is otherwise a production characterized by its immediacy.

At its best, though, that immediacy can certainly be quite gripping. There’s a lot to Hoffman’s story about familial love, loss, and redemption. But in this production, with the care of Campbell-Holt and the commitment of Campbell, Harbour, and Wesley, it’s the power of feeling that leaves the strongest mark.

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