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Broke

a World Premiere
CATEGORY :
by Janece Shaffer

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Hertz Stage [WEBSITE]
ID# 4125

SHOWING : September 23, 2011 - October 23, 2011

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

The Eliason family is living the American dream until Liz Eliason, a high level marketing executive, comes home to her husband Jonathan with the news that she’s been fired. She is shocked; Jonathan is thrilled. With the wealth they have accrued from her career, they can now finally enjoy a life together. But when the company Liz has worked for goes under a few days later and with it, a great part of their wealth, Liz, Jonathan and their 19 year-old daughter Missie – a student at NYU – are now facing a new reality. BROKE asks the question: when it seems like everything is falling through your fingers, what (and who) do you hold onto?

Written by Atlanta’s own Janece Shaffer, BROKE is a deeply moving and almost-too-close-for-comfort story about when the indispensable in corporate America become dispensable. Shaffer once again brings to life a story that touches our community’s heart with compassion, keen insights, and humor.


CAST & CREW LIST
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REVIEWS

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Kyrie Eliason
by Dedalus
Friday, October 28, 2011
5.0
Sometimes a play is so timely and hits so “close to home” that I can’t help watching it with a strong case of déjà vu filtering everything. Such a play is “Broke,” Janece Shaffer’s new play about how one family copes with the “new economy.”

The Eliasons are a wealthy American family, living large with the brass ring and playing large with a huge share of the American Dream. When primary breadwinner Liz (Tess Malis Kincaid) loses her high-level, high-pressure job, the reaction is muted at first. After all, they still have their retirement nest egg, Husband Jonathan (James M. Leaming) owns his own small business, and Liz has an iiPhone full of contacts and headhunters chomping at the bit to hire her.

But then, Liz’s former employer goes completely bust, wiping out their seven-figure retirement fund. The realization soon sinks in that executive vacancies at Liz’s level are non-existent. And selling their home is not an option, because it’s worth less than what they owe. What follows is a sequence of events in which “going broke” tries and tests the Eliason family in ways that are uncomfortably recognizable and dramatically satisfying.

We get the denial phase, where Jonathan buys a new wall-sized TV and acts as if there is nothing different about their circumstances. We get the bargaining phase, where Liz and Jonathan choose what’s important to their lives, and what’s not so important. We get the anger phase, where Liz cannot understand why Jonathan refuses to sell his business (what matters family legacies when a large payout can come?) and Jonathan cannot understand why Liz “mismanaged” their nest egg (“Who puts ALL their money into company stock?”). We get the depression phase, where Liz finds the TV more consoling than the lap-top job search. And we get the acceptance phase, where hard choices are made, accommodations are negotiated, plans are adjusted, and family ties are strengthened.

And that, in a nutshell, is the strength of this wonderful new play. When writing about hot-button political topics, it’s so easy to get up on your soapbox, and pontificate about how this group is evil or that party is misguided or that idea will lead us all down the brimstone path to doom and destruction. Ms. Shaffer is more interested in what makes up a family, what tears at the ties that bind us, what compromises we make to maintain the core heartbeat(s) of the relationship(s). In previous plays, she has examined how conflicts of spirituality can sabotage the closest of families (“Bluish”), how golden-years romance repaints past relationships (“Managing Maxine”), and how familial common threads (e.g. Motherhood) can trump conflicts raised by racism and other prejudgments (“Brownie Points”). All of these plays gave us memorable characters in simple situations, characters defined by how they talk and what they say, relationships defined by what’s left unsaid and what’s left unthought. All of these plays are, first and foremost, theatrical entertainments about families, with any political points relegated to the “things we all share” pigeonhole. All of these plays are defined by imperfect characters, loved and resented, memorable in their imperfections and unwise choices, relevant in their lessons learned and growths made.

With the Eliasons, Ms. Shaffer has created an almost-perfect family for this particular story. Let’s start with the fact that their circumstances are so very different from most of ours (especially those working in the Arts). After all, there really aren’t too many families who can “make ends meet” by “selling the Lake House.” Not many families have a seven-figure “nest egg.” Not many families have a daughter in a high-cost university competing for a “London internship.” Still, the script and the production make them recognizable, make them “everyfamily” without sacrificing their characteristic identity. It’s the little details that help define them, the story of their meeting in a Laundromat (“He was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), their wading into the morass of coupon-clipping and discount-grocery stores (“Are we Big-K Cola people now?”), their guilty-pleasure indulgence-hiding (a quick dunk of a Starbucks behind a potted plant when the spouse comes in). They never lose their essential humanity, as embodied by the “outsider,” Evalyn Rentas (Elisabeth Omilami), an organizer for a summer camp for underprivileged kids. Her program was left in the cold by the mega-corporation’s failure, and in between resume-building Liz does everything she can to ensure the program continues, even running the whole thing when Ms. Rentas injures herself in a slip-and-fall. (Of course, because this is the play it is, Jonathan has to wonder “Are we liable?”)

And the play of chockfull of dialogue that sings, that amuses and moves, that rings true by exposing character idiosyncrasy and long-suppressed resentments. This is a play that treads, always successfully, a fine line between high drama and character-based comedy. There are a (fairly) equal balance of serious and light moments, and the end-result is an evening spent with a family that’s worth knowing, with characters who can be aggravating and inspiring.

And none if it would work without the invaluable and maddeningly talented cast. Tess Malis Kincaid gives another in what is an apparently endless series of beautifully dynamic performances, giving Liz an intelligence, a drive, and a sexiness that give the play a hot-blooded life that can be almost overwhelming. She is well-matched by James M. Leaving, who gives us a Jonathan who is a bit of a hang-dog over-grown boyishness, who revels in his kid’s shoe store and treats life’s challenges like just another game to be conquered. In the smaller roles of daughter Missie and Evalyn Harris, Galen Crawley and Elisabeth Omilami add dimension and contrast to the family, showing layers of emotion and connection not always made explicit by the dialogue.

The set (by Jack Magaw) gives us a realistic (and comfortable) home that looks both elegant and lived-in. It’s significant that I heard someone say “I want to live there” upon seeing the set at the start of the evening. Pete Shinn’s lighting very nicely fills the space, showing us sunlight through unseen windows, flickers from the larger-than-sensible television, and moody between-scenes “pictures” that never disrupt the flow of the story.

So, yes, I’m becoming a major league Janece Shaffer fan. She can skillfully build a strong scenario that resonates with timeliness without being politically obvious, can write conversations and arguments most of us have experienced in our own household budget wars (when did she wiretap our home office?), and can create a family that is appealing and true-to-life. Most playwrights would (or should) be envious of these abilities. And to tie it all up in a compelling and entertaining theatrical entertainment is a talent not to be underestimated.

If you can afford it, I strongly urge you go for “Broke.” Have mercy on the Eliasons!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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