When retired judge Lawrence has a brush with death, he decides to set aside his old ways of condemnation and strict adherence to the law and give himself some leeway to be good. He takes on a pro bono legal consultation for a young mother recently incarcerated for drug charges who is trying to get back on her feet. Eventually, he takes her and her son in as a way to erase his emotional debts, which doesn’t sit so well with his children, who are sure he’s being duped. Stephen Belber’s Don’t Go Gentle, currently running at the Lucille Lortel Theater, is cut from the cloth of standard family drama. But for all its trope-friendliness, this one is well-handled and conflicted.
Belber’s dialogue is snappy and subtle. However, natural dialogue and smart actor delivery aside, it’s hard not to notice a few things lost in the shuffle. Most glaring is the omission of meatier swaths of backstory, particularly for Lawrence. He talks about wanting to make up for his shortcomings by doing good, and Amelia, his daughter talks about his cold dismissal of their mother, and wayward son Ben has clearly dug his own deep well of resentment. But we only see that man in brief flashes, exclusively in reaction to his children. So because we’ve got so little to go on—really, just hearsay—it raises some questions. Quite frankly, without hard evidence of that behavior, it’s difficult to pick sides. Do Amelia and Ben need to deal with their own issues and stop blaming their father? Is Lawrence genuine in his efforts to turn over a new leaf, or is he just punishing his kids? Is he being taken advantage of by guests Tanya and Rasheed? Theatre doesn’t necessarily owe us the correct answer, but Don’t Go Gentle would really benefit from more showing and less telling.
Despite the title’s suggestion, Lucie Tiberghien guides this production with a clever delicacy. She makes good use of Robin Vest’s multilevel set, which makes up for a lack of emotional hominess with attractive paneling. It initially feels like a place that someone lives, not a home, which adds a nice contrast to Tanya and Rasheed’s time there. They and Lawrence grow into the framework of the home, into a family, one with a clean slate. Tiberghien’s sense of pace works well and keeps the proceedings from veering into talking-head territory. In her hands, we sympathize with a character one moment, then immediately feel ashamed for thinking such a thing. She displays great trust in her actors—which she should, because they’re a fine cast.
In the leading role, Michael Cristofer is remarkable. We see a mostly static Lawrence, all things considered. He’s already had his sea change before the action begins, so the real fun is to watch his family—old and new—react to the stimulus. Mr. Cristofer is the rock that the river of the play must flow around, so to speak, and he handles his dual roles as judge and defender with agility. He and his children haven’t really found a way to be around each other as a family, and David Wilson Barnes’s (Ben) is a tightly wound proof. He gives the impression of always being one heartbeat away from something and projects that tension even in stillness. Jennifer Mudge’s Amelia relegated herself to the role of caretaker, one that stings to have taken away from her. She’s the peacekeeper, if only because she hasn’t found a way to leave for good. Angela Lewis’s no-nonsense bristling barely disguises a deep need to feel secure—hers is a particularly nuanced performance. She doesn’t want to drive anyone apart, but she certainly doesn’t want to refuse a good chance for her son. As Rasheed, Maxx Brawer shows great maturity and some good comic timing. His transition from a precocious boy to a self-aware man suggests that we’ll have more good work of his headed our way.
As one character states, one can overcome history by “doing something else.” Don’t Go Gentle doesn’t exactly reroute the trajectory of the family drama, but it’s a good addition to the books. Despite its familiarity, this production is engaging, well-cast, and worth seeing.