Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joel Drake Johnson’s disturbing play The Fall to Earth provides a perfect example of just how uniquely unhappy one dysfunctional family can be.
When the middle-aged Fay Schorsch and her estranged daughter, Rachel Browney, first check in to a nondescript motel room, they do not seem very different from many mothers and adult daughters who have trouble connecting with each other. At first, we can’t help but feel sorry for Fay, who talks incessantly to hide her insecurities. Rachel, a divorced businesswoman, is clearly impatient and overly irritated by her mother. It soon becomes evident that this family has many dark secrets and that each woman is carrying an oversized load of emotional baggage.
The audience discovers quickly that something awful has happened to Kenny, Fay’s son and Rachel’s younger brother, and that is the reason that Fay and Rachel have flown together to this small town where he has been living. Johnson’s tightly written, suspenseful drama unfolds layer by layer, gradually exposing the tragic details of Kenny’s life and why his family has not seen him in three years.
The three-woman cast is impeccable. Deborah Hedwall’s performance is outstanding as she takes us on an emotional rollercoaster that reveals the many nuances of Fay’s complicated, tormented character. As Fay’s moods change on a dime, Hedwall transforms seamlessly from a cheerful, unsophisticated Midwestern wife and mother to a frightening, enraged woman who is out of control.
As Rachel, Jolie Curtsinger succeeds in the difficult task of playing opposite the all-consuming Fay, who barely gives her a chance to speak. Until Rachel finally confronts her mother late in the play, Curtsinger’s facial expressions and body language convey exactly how she feels about Fay and reflect the tension in their relationship. Amelia Campbell is perfect as Terry Reed, a sympathetic police investigator and mother of two with her own family problems, who helps mother and daughter learn about what happened to Kenny.
This is not a conventional mother/daughter drama, but for those who are prepared for an evening of gut-wrenching theater that tackles some heavy issues, The Fall to Earth takes an engrossing look at the unraveling of one family.
The Fall to Earth; Written by Joel Drake Johnson; Directed by Joe Brancato; 59E59 Theaters; 59 East 59th Street; 212-279-4200; 59e59.org