Anti-gay bullying and its potentially fatal consequences are hardly topics you’d expect to see tackled by a theater company perhaps best known for seniors-friendly mystery/comedy fare, but these are precisely the issues that propel Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill’s shattering family drama Late Company, now being given a compelling American Premiere at Beverly Hill’s Theatre 40.
The company arriving late for dinner at the suburban Toronto home of 50something politician Michael Shaun-Hastings (Grinnell Morris) and his sculptor wife Debora (Ann Hearn) are the somewhat younger Dermots, Bill and Tamara (Todd Johnson and Jennifer Lynn Davis) and their seventeen-year-old son Curtis (Baker Chase Powell), and it’s clearly not just their tardiness that has Michael and Debora on edge.
“We have one way that we’ve envisioned this going, which is positive,” remarks Michael before suggesting that the evening ahead could just as easily be “a complete unmitigated disaster.”
Playwright Tannahill takes his deliberate time in revealing the reasons for the Dermots’ visit. Introductions are followed by small talk, Michael expresses surprise upon learning that his wife and Tamara have been corresponding by email, and there’s a brief discussion of the Shaun-Hastingses’ son Joel’s reaction to his family’s move from downtown to the suburbs. (Debora: He always hated it out here. Michael: He didn’t like mind the change. He liked change.)
Soon enough, however, it becomes evident that despite a sixth table setting, Joel will not be joining them for dinner tonight. (Bill: The Polish do that; set places for the dead.)
It becomes clear too that bullying, either instigated or encouraged by Curtis, may have contributed to Joel’s death, and that the evening’s meal is in fact merely a pretext for an attempt at “closure.”
A less accomplished, less daring, less audience-challenging writer than out gay playwright Tannahill (just 25 when Late Company world premiered in 2013) could just as easily have taken the above setup and tied it up in a feel-good ribbon of love and forgiveness and acceptance and hugs, a Lifetime Original Movie or Afterschool Special recreated live on stage.
Eschewing easy answers, Tannahill instead makes a point of constantly upending expectations, and not just about where Late Company is heading but about just who these people are.
Which couple has done the better job of parenting? Who bears the greatest guilt in Joel’s death? What on earth could provoke a high school boy to bully a classmate to death? These and other questions raised in Late Company are likely to ignite plenty of heated post-curtain-call talk.
Language is raw, emotions are rawer, and under Bruce Gray’s incisive direction, the Late Company cast tear into Tannahill’s gritty, hard-hitting script to devastating effect.
Johnson and Davis are absolutely riveting as the rougher-hewn Dermots, newcomer Powell proves a revelation as the still-waters-run-deep Curtis, and Theatre 40 favorite Morris once again impresses as a man whose silences speak volumes.
Still, if there’s any one performance audiences will be talking about, it is Hearn’s, her fire-and-ice Debora recalling Mary Tyler Moore’s Oscar-nominated star turn in Ordinary People.
Jeff G. Rack’s elegant dining room set has been impeccably lit by Ric Zimmerman. (Brian Barraza is assistant lighting designer.) Michèle Young’s costumes reveal much about the characters who wear them. Sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski ups the evening’s emotional punch with a mood setting mix of music and effects.
Late Company is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Michele Bernath is assistant director. Amanda Sauter is stage manager.
Not since 2013’s Remembrance has Theatre 40 pushed the audience-challenging envelope anywhere near as powerfully as it has with Late Company. Expect to be blown away.