Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Things I Know to Be True is set in the backyard of Bob (Bill Geisslinger) and Fran's (Jordan Baker) house and follows the activities and personal crises of the couple and their four grown children over a one-year period. The domineering Fran holds court over her family, though her negative comments and "know it all" attitude may not be as helpful as she thinks, since each of her four children struggles to find his or her identity in the world. Eldest daughter Pip (Kelley Faulkner) desperately tries to balance her high-powered job with the role of being a wife and mother, while the youngest sibling Rosie (Aubyn Heglie), who took a "gap year" off before college to travel Europe, has come back home early after finding herself heartbroken in Berlin. As part of her healing, Rosie decides to make a list of all the things she knows to be true in her life, even though she discovers it's a very short list. Ben (Zach Fifer) believes money is the key to success and happiness, even though he is struggling with both, and Mark (Kevin Kantor) is a sensitive soul who has relationship issues and, like all of his siblings and his parents, has secrets that will be painfully revealed over the year the play follows. What is also very clear from almost the first scene is that all six individuals are also very unhappy. To say more about the plot would spoil the many shocks, conflicts, reveals, confrontations, and joys that Bovell has expertly baked into the piece.
Over the years, there have been plenty of explosive theatrical dramas that focus on dysfunctional families and their issues, and Bovell's play is one of the best of recent examples. Much like Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, Bovell has crafted an expert drama of family conflict and secrets, with a strong, central matriarch in the form of Fran, who is surrounded by vivid characters that are fully fleshed out. He also writes incredibly realistic dialogue, and the situations he puts his characters in are natural, though they may not be ones you've personally dealt with. However, there will most likely be a trait in one of the characters or an element in the plot that each audience member will latch onto as something they've either experienced or questioned in their own lives that will pull them into the plot and the plight of each character. Bovell has also created a beautiful structure for the piece, with each of the four children delivering a monologue that coincides with the changing of the four seasons over the year the play covers.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater Company's Artistic Director Mark Clements' direction is faultless. The cast of six have been living and breathing these parts for more than two months now, and they clearly know them inside and out. Each actor is superb, with Jordan Baker simply sensational as the rough, "no holds barred" and argumentative mother who thinks she has all the answers and can solve all of her family's problems. Fran is a woman you will most likely hate, but from Baker's excellent portrayal, and Bovell's expert writing, you won't ever question her actions or her motives.
Scott Davis' scenic design is highly effective in depicting the yard of the house that has been significant to many events for this family, with a large structure that represents the oak tree that is beautifully designed from wavy strips of wood. Three potted rosebushes, which the cast change throughout the play to depict the impact time has on the plantsharsh in winter and beautiful in the springhighlight and echo the change of seasons and the hurt, growth and love the characters experience. The highly stylized and choreographed movement by Julia Rhoads and an original score by Joe Cerqua demonstrate the close-knit structure of the family and their deep reliance on each other. When members of the cast are held aloft on the arms of their castmates or find support and strength by leaning against one another, it creates effective and moving stage images to portray the dependence, emotional ties, and strong pull of the family unit.
Andrew Bovell's Things I Know to Be True is a thought-provoking, poignant, poetic, and powerful play that beautifully demonstrates that, no matter how much you prepare for the future and guide your children, you can never truly be prepared for what life has planned. Also, while the characters may not all be likable, as there are plenty of nasty confrontations and hurtful words they say, they are all individuals you can't look away from. That shows just how well written, acted and directed this production is.
Things I Know to Be True through June 2, 2019, at at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling 602-2566995.
Director: Mark Clements
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.