An actor asks the audience whether they’ve ever participated in a protest. Nearly all the hands in the room shoot up. When this theater company, The Assembly, first staged HOME/SICK in 2011, I suspect the question would have elicited a different response.
As I sat at the theater, my arms were still aching from holding up a protest sign that week as part of the Day Without A Woman strike. With many looking at political action differently in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the timely return of this devised play about the 1960’s anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist student organization The Weather Underground is a reflective look at how revolt foments and dissolves.
Blending fact and fiction, HOME/SICK is no blind memorial to the members of the Underground or to the era from which the movement was borne. With a critical eye and rigorous storytelling, the play explores the passion, sex, sexism, whiteness, contradictions, frustrations, and fractiousness of this group which formed out of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960’s and fell apart 18 years later.
The story jumps in mid-stream in the student protest movement in 1968. Harnessing a fury in response to the Vietnam war, these white revolutionaries sought to model themselves after the Black Panthers and other figures of revolution. Once they went underground they waged a campaign of violence against military, governmental, and police targets, with the express focus to do property and not human damage.
We glean that Bernard (Kate Benson) is a law school dropout getting money from her family. Tommy (Ben Beckley) is a leader who rallied students at Columbia and may be living off that glory to get in more girls’ pants. Charismatic and charming, Paul (Luke Harlan) often feels like the warm center of the collective even if there is none. Kathy (Anna Abhau Elliott) is a poet and a purist to the cause. David (Edward Bauer) is an uptight technician who never quite blends with the rest of the group and becomes particularly attached to Kathy. The diminutive Anna (Emily Louise Perkins) mixes happy homemaker tendencies with her revolutionary verve.
Naturally over time infighting, dogmatic differences, and bourgeois notions (monogamy and casseroles) drift into their activism bubble. A confrontation with David over spending time outside the collective leads to a cataclysmic event for the group.
In addition to the main narrative, there are breakaway moments where the performers share anecdotes about the research they participated in to build the show.
The piece’s success is twofold. First, even if the subject is political the work envelopes us with the personal. Far from dry or didactic, there’s humor, charm, brittleness, and heartache throughout. Director Jess Chayes keeps an intensely human focus. She builds intimacy into the large space at Jack with a thrust staging. The audience hugs the action and occasionally the actors leap up on the platforms we’re seated on. Chayes carves out certain scenes with pools of light (with lighting design by Miriam Nilofa Crowe) which give a conspiratorial air. At other times, lights may be up on the audience and we make eye contact with the characters. Finely crafted sound design by Asa Wember takes us from quiet covert operations to earth-rattling explosions.
Besides posing questions to the audience about government, protest, and violence at the start, the audience is lured into the action at intermission with a dance party. We contribute our thoughts to the show’s finale as well.
Second, the talented ensemble enhance this staged intimacy with their complex characters and deeply-felt performances. Bauer deftly displays range with three different characters. He wins us over with his bumbling, wounded, but internalized David. He has a brief turn as a jovial Fort Dix military party host during the intermission who is all extrovert. Finally, his timbre changes to inviting storyteller in his monologue where he explains how he came to create the role of David. Beckley’s Tommy is a mean and seductive creep who broods with dangerous attraction. Perkins’ Anna starts out wide-eyed but grows embittered over time. Benson’s Bernard intimidates and dominates. Elliott’s Kathy betrays her own feelings for the sake of the cause and the ease to which she does this is haunting. Harlan provides both a soothing voice of calm along with a passionate fury, making his Paul unpredictable but captivating. As a whole, they draw us in.
As the group begins to splinter, the visual language of the show becomes more symbolic and less literal. We’re watching their unspooling and that creates some beautiful tableaux but with a run time of two and a half hours it’s here things begin to drag a little.
By intercutting confessional moments by each cast member on how they found their way into the project we are given the opportunity to reflect on both past and present, artist and activist at once. We learn what books they read, the themes that struck them, the journeys they took, and how they came to know their characters and each other. Some of these monologues are stronger than others but they keenly frame the parallels between coming together to make collaborative theater and organizing political action.