Encore Michigan

‘Tom Durnin’ brings out angst of 2008-2009 economic meltdown at Meadow Brook

Review March 19, 2017 Patrice Nolan

ROCHESTER, Mich. – Meadow Brook Theatre is staging the Michigan premiere of The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin by Steven Levenson, a family drama that asks vital questions about the price of loyalty, the cost of dishonesty, and the currency of trust. Set squarely in the recession of 2009 – when GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and so many in the tri-county area lost their jobs, their homes, and their faith in the American Dream – it’s a play worth seeing, talking about, and thinking through.

The play opens minutes after Tom Durnin shows up unannounced at his son’s house, trying to pick up where he left off after spending five years in prison for investment fraud. Loren Bass, as Tom Durnin, wastes no time in hustling sympathy and playing the “I’m-your-father card” to convince his son James (Lucas Wells) to let him crash on the sofa for a while. James is torn between anger against the man who betrayed his family (and so many others), and an innate desire to restore what was broken and lost in his own life – a son’s belief in his father.

Meadow Brook Theatre Artistic Director Travis W. Walter, who directs this play, gives the script’s tight dialog just enough room to force consideration of Tom’s character from various vantage points. Each member of this strong cast has a telling moment in which some aspect of Tom’s nature is revealed and we see it clearly in their reaction. Tom Durnin is a complicated guy. We want to be sympathetic. But Tom himself seems unrepentant – admitting that he screwed up but expecting that, because he “paid the price” of a five-year prison sentence, he has somehow purchased the forgiveness of all the people whose lives he has completely undone.

Tom’s ex-wife Karen is played by the always impressive Julia Glander. She wants nothing to do with Tom. And though it’s clear that her love for him was at one time genuine, she has taught herself to move on and let go of the dross he convinced her was gold. She urges her children to stay away from the toxic, compulsive liar she once believed in.

Tom’s daughter refuses to see him or answer his calls, but Tom puts the emotional strong-arm on his son-in-law Chris. Rusty Mewha, as Chris, is clearly a soul racked by deep conflict; he owes a debt to Tom for landing him a good job with the law firm they both used to work for, but he is betraying his wife’s wishes by even talking to her dad. When Tom tries to force Chris’ hand, and compel him to do something Chris knows is wrong, we begin to understand how Tom successfully manipulated people all his life.

Over the course of the play, we watch as Tom uses people, spins yarns to earn their trust, begs or bullies them to get what he needs, and then convinces himself that what he’s doing is all above board. This is one of the unsettling things that this play, and Loren Bass as Tom, do very well: Tom truly sees himself as the victim in the story. He feels entitled to that second chance to have his life back, and never really acknowledges the damage he’s done to those who trusted him and whose lives he irrevocably shattered. He doesn’t understand their cries for restitution. And he refuses to see that trust – which should be strongest among family members – is a Humpty-Dumpty that, once shattered, cannot be put back together again.

Offered as counterpoint to the tension caused by the reappearance of Tom Durnin is a blossoming friendship between James Durnin and another student in his creative writing class, Katie. Played by Dani Cochrane, Katie has lost her job as art teacher when the art program was cut because of lost funding. We relate to her as the innocent victim of circumstance who – like so many of us – became collateral damage in someone else’s political/economic war. When she shows interest in James’ writing, and in James himself, he finds himself spinning lies to cover the awkward truth about his father and the con that made him a hated man in their community. The irony of this duplicity is not lost on the audience, and we begin to wonder how many people will be sucked into the whirlpool of Tom Durnin’s mendacity.

As with so many MBT productions, this one delights the audience with robust production values. The ingenious set design by Brian Kessler is arranged to include: a cut-away of James’ house; a patio outside the college classroom where James and Katie meet; a parking spot where Tom meets Chris in his car, which drives on and off the set; and an exterior of Karen’s new condo that spins to reveal the interior. Other designers on this show include Liz Goodall, costumes; Reid G. Johnson, lighting; and Mike Duncan, sound. Terry Carpenter is the stage manager.

For all its serious subject matter, this show has many funny bits and is thoroughly entertaining. It also poses riddles we all grapple with as human beings. Who hasn’t been betrayed at some time by a friend, a lover, or by someone in authority? Once trust is betrayed, can it ever be restored? Should it be? The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin does not leave us with a unicorns-and-rainbows redemptive ending. But we have a strong sense that at least some of the characters will make better choices and recover a portion of the happiness they lost. No doubt, audience members will interpret the ending in different ways. Ultimately, however, what seems important for the victims of broken faith is to disempower the perpetrator by learning something from the experience. Some will learn to never trust anyone ever again. But the better lesson, perhaps, is that the simple act of forgiving – if not forgetting – lets the process of healing begin.

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