Playwright Josh Tobiessen has what may be a singular vision of the disintegration of the American family. His new comedy, Stinkers, on stage at the Jungle Theater, portrays the disconnection between an adult son and his mother. Brad is a stay at home father of two toddlers, whose wife is away on business. Joyce, his mother, has just been released from prison for financial crime sprung from her impulse for greed. The production is continuously funny, never missing a beat from its spot on performances directed by Tobiessen’s wife, Sarah Rasmussen.
John Catron brings the patience of Job to Brad as the volatile antics of his small children are constantly interrupting his every task. Just when a lesser self-contained parent would lose their cool, virtuous Brad softens frantic situations with doting forgiveness and understanding.
He’s such a sweet soul that he extends this quality (probably unwisely) to his slacker buddy, Calvin (a hilarious Nate Cheeseman), as well. Through this character, Tobiessen brilliantly shapes into the structure of Stinkers a stinging commentary on New Age influences on American life. The undisciplined Calvin is not necessarily a victim of the economy and that favorite term of late, “capitalism”, the likes we’ve heard stated so often over the past several years now.
His malaise runs deeper than that. For some reason, Calvin genuinely lacks purpose and initiative. His “something for nothing” credo, has him resort to visualization and creative exercises asking for financial abundance that summon the Law of Attraction. To be clear, visualizations can be effective when one’s indicators are in alignment, as the Law of Attraction channeller Esther/Abraham Hicks puts into perspective at their impelling presentations. But clearly something has been seriously clogging Calvin’s vortex for quite some time. Some might say that Calvin has yet to do the “inner work” to get his life on track.
Sally Wingert brings a vividly rough-edged quality to Joyce. The character is quite discomfited by the thought of being a grandma and catches herself in the crude vocabulary of her criminal lifestyle, realizing that children are present. She’s well matched by her fellow former female ex-con crony, Lilith, played impressively with femme fatale cool by George Keller. Though neither woman seems to have learned the error of her ways, Lilith at least seems somewhat sharper.
It wouldn’t be practical or realistic for a 90-minute production playing for several weeks to have two actual child actors on stage for much of the duration of the running time. The little girl and little boy have many lines woven organically into the script, so Tobiessen has formed a clever conceit to represent them. Two adult actors vocalize the children while manipulating puppets on stage, perhaps a bit bigger than the size of actual children. Chelsea M. Warren’s artfully charming design of the figures fluidly adapts to the human actors manipulating them.
Reed Sigmund and Megan M. Burns manifest childlike vocal rhythms with robust vibrancy, though at times Sigmund is too abrupt and overpowering and needs to scale it back. Nonetheless, the pair are endearingly funny as they convey Tobiessen’s uncanny grasp of how little kids talk.
Tobiessen’s craft in Stinkers is superior to that of his play, Lone Star Spirits, produced at the Jungle a few years ago. What is promising about Stinkers is that he reveals a fine instinct for the zeitgeist of our time, when disrupted family units have come to be more the norm than they were in the not-too-distant past. This instinct, if used to penetrate the pain of the situations he presents, could be an inductive leap for this playwriting. Stinkers doesn’t choose to go into what was clearly an abusive mother to son relationship, though it’s put there right before us in the strong performances by Catron and Wingert.
On the other hand, as stated, Tobiessen’s take on New Age delusion is superb. Notably, the previous Jungle production, the enchanting Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl, was a play that really took on that issue. My gut tells me Tobiessen is capable of doing the same on that subject, as well as human relationships in general. He has rich insight and Rasmussen serves his work with terrific naturalistic observation. She has a gift for conveying that capacity to actors, whether she’s dealing with contemporary or historical texts. (She has a knack for both.) I hope this husband-wife duo goes on to dig deeper.
Through Aug. 18
Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis