When 20-something James returns to his childhood home, he kicks up more than just the dust and clutter in his aging father’s living room. Hometown Boy looks at that which lies beneath.
Now in its West Coast premiere, Keiko Green’s engrossing contemporary play is a slow build with a big crescendo, as it navigates family dysfunction and long-buried small-town secrets. It runs through this Sunday at Seattle Public Theater.
There’s something about watching someone stand defiantly straight, methodically frosting a cake, while everything around them crumbles. The frosting, so neat, so well-placed, so logical. Predictable. Carefully controlled.
The rest of the world, not so much.
It’s a searing image in Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake, and it’s perhaps even more potent here in Keiko Green’s Hometown Boy, a play that’s not obviously about a cake at all. But that memorable scene serves as both crux and metaphor for everything else going on as its central characters’ pasts and present collide.
It’s been 10 years since James, a new-New Yorker now in law school, last stepped into his childhood home, a modest single-family house in small-town Georgia that his dad continues to cling to, with both structure and resident trapped in an increasing state of decay. James and his mom fled to apartment life in the city when an event quaked their world, and neither has looked back. The dad, meanwhile, is still greeted by their photos on dust-caked walls every day.
Ostensibly it’s a dead cat that brings James back, but that lure never really takes a convincing hold. It seems he’s been planning, and dreading, this trip for ages. So in a sounded like a good idea at the time-style of predictable disaster, he brings his girlfriend, Becks, along into the fray. James is different when he’s back in this literal and symbolic muck, and unravels further still when faced with new information that’s steering his present circumstances more than he knew. It doesn’t take much to kick the anthill; and neither Becks (certainly) nor James (somewhat surprisingly) knows the terrain well enough to know what spots to avoid. Or maybe he’s been waiting to greet this shitstorm for a while now.
Green is a sharp writer, observing the complexities — and idiocies — of human behavior, and the shame we can sit on for decades; and in Hometown Boy, that muck is artfully revealed. From the literal storm crashing around outside to the stench of what lies beneath in the basement, this is a script loaded with metaphor. That’s paired well with pacing from director Annie Lareau that builds a mystery without sacrificing the immediacy of the present, as the long-ago burns and nagging questions all rush up to the surface.
And while he’s seemingly the engine driving this disarray, it’s impossible not to love Walter, the dad, who trundles around in a near-constant state of befuddlement but is surprisingly lucid on what he chooses to ignore. Credit Stephen Sumida’s acting for such an endearing portrayal. Walter raises, convincingly, what it means to “take care of” an elder who’s aware of their disarray — and might have reasons, which make sense only to them, for keeping it that way.
The rest of the cast makes this web of characters bold and identifiable. Tim Gouran is always a treat on stage, particularly in characters with some grit, and his performance here doesn’t disappoint. Mike Wu and Rachel Guyer-Mafune make a believably earnest couple of six months’ vintage, just the right amount of time to think you know someone. Jennifer Ewing and Tim Hyland each pull off a likable, put-together surface, and each weighted with a desperate determination to keep it that way.
But the house and the suffocation of this place are characters unto themselves, “acted” richly by the design team: D.R. Amromin (sound), Ahren Buhmann (lighting), Robin Macartney (props), Kelly McDonald (costumes), and Parmida Ziaei (scenic). Through subtle and not-so-subtle effects and fuzzy nostalgic musical bits, the sound design somehow captures this tapestry of creeping rot, an impending crash, and a borderline-desperate cling to hope. It might be one of the prolific Amromin’s best designs yet. And while the house sorely needed another dozen-plus years of accumulation, dust, and neglect, Ziaei’s set design allows spaces to flow well in this multi-transition tale.
For playwright Green, the journey navigates transitions and identities she knows well: a Japanese American from the South, pursuing her aspirations in the North, then out to Seattle, and finally now to California, where she writes for stage and screen. (Green talks about the play and its thematic origins in an excellent interview with International Examiner, here.)
And for this Green Lake stage, it’s a different series of transitions: the end of an era under outgoing Artistic Director Annie Lareau, this show’s director, marks the start of Producing Artistic Director Amy Poisson (who for years has led the “fierce female”-driven Macha Theatre Works) now at the helm. The theatre will announce its new season under Poisson’s leadership at a reveal party on June 13.
Seattle Public Theater’s season-ender marks a fitting transition from one to the next.
Through weighty, often relatable subjects, the exceptional Hometown Boy takes a deep dive into the past. But it ultimately lets out with a sense of newness, its characters free to wonder for the future.
Hometown Boy runs through 5/28 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets ($5-$50, sliding scale available to all) here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.