Encore Michigan

‘My Dad Was Fifteen Feet Tall:’ a new play at Outvisible Theatre

Review July 21, 2019 David Kiley

ALLEN PARK, Mich.–Alcoholism and depression create great tragedy in every culture. The toll these diseases take on children is gargantuan. My Dad Was 15 Feet Tall, a new play by Maxim Vinogradov, at Outvisible Theatre seeks to tell the story of three teenagers deeply impacted by the weaknesses and illnesses of their parents.

The father of Lucy (Anna Doyle) father (Robert Schorr) is a desperate, hollowed out man suffering from depression and off his meds, deeply affected by the death by cancer of his wife and Lucy’s Mother. He is not a violent, abusive alcoholic. Indeed, he has long been conscientious, preparing Lucy’s meals and school lunches, sharing carpool duty. He is broken, and does the unimaginable given the fact that he is the sole surviving parent. Lucy had a lot of reasons to reject her father, but she never stops loving him.

John had an alcoholic father who left the family. His Mom is remarried and pregnant. John is clearly on the outside looking in. His father is dead, by suicide, though he is denial, and he is lost.

Marlene’s father is not dead. A bit of a flake, his “leaving” of Marlene is not done into a bottle of Scotch or via suicide, but to a woman that he prefers to Marlene’s mother.

A lot of the action takes place in Lucy’s house, which she is now occupying by herself after her father’s death. She is still going to school, and is dodging the authorities who will put her into foster care if it is discovered she is on her own. She has been able to piece together enough money from checks intended for her late Mother and a part time job, forgeries, etc.

This play was commissioned by Outvisible. Vinogradov is a rising playwright, having one two Hopwood Awards for his plays at The University of Michigan. Vinogradov has shown a penchant for shifting time and place within his plays. Sometimes, it is too much, especially in very small spaces like Outvisible Theatre, which has a performance space measuring roughly 24 feet by 11 feet. Indeed, look away for a second and you can miss a key detail that is critical to understanding something later in the play. The stories are intricate, and what with the same actor playing all three fathers, and the set not changing….a lot is asked of the audience to follow the threads of this quilt.

The teens are gathered on Halloween night. And they are trying to commune with Lucy’s Mother via a Ouija Board. Vinogradov has the story shift in time and place to the previous February, as well as twice to a time six years earlier, and in different houses–13 times in all. All this happens with a static set. Without the list of scene changes in the program to follow, like a scorecard in a baseball game, it is very hard to follow and piece together what is going on, and where and when. Even with the list, it’s taxing.

In a larger space, the time and place shifts could be accomplished better with lighting and space changes. It might hang together better.

There is a tradition of storytelling that involves the classic arc. Vinogradov is not alone in challenging the form. The younger playwrights are restless. One of the things that Vinogradov plays around with a lot in his work so far is incorporating how people think and dream and how their minds will take them to other times and places. I get it. Why not have that be part of the action and story? Life does not happen in a neat arc, so why should the stories of life be? Other playwrights have long played with this, but Vinogradov puts it on steroids.

This is a play about 16 year olds. The actors are in their 20s, but have not forgotten some of their angsty teenagery body language and vocal inflection. Vinogradov, a recent college graduate, too, has a gift for dialogue writing, and is also not very far, if at all, from the patois of the teen.

Doyle’s Lucy does well to convey, in her voice and even the way she holds her head, a teenager being rushed at breakneck speed into adulthood. Scott Anthony Joy is John, and nails the tortured awkward teen, right down to his gate across the small Outvisible space. Taylor Morrow sits just a tad bit on the outside of the friction between Lucy and John as her plight in the relationship with her father, while not to be minimized, is not quite as bad as what her friends are experiencing. The decision to have her wear cat ears through most of the play was pretty inspired to convey she is in no hurry to get on the treadmill of early adulthood. One gets the idea she would embrace pajama day at school at age 16, while Lucy would have none of it.

Robert Schorr has Dad duty. He plays all three fathers as the plays zigs and zags through time and space. Between Schorr’s abilities and some deft costume differentiation, he does a good job of separating his father characters. And he especially and properly embodies Lucy’s Dad as a broken, pathetic, detached zombie version of the man he once was, saturated as he is with Bourbon. Getting the nuance of this right is not as easy as you’d think.

Like them or hate them, or love them. Fathers–with their flaws, weaknesses, crimes, misdemeanors, loves, benders, mistakes–loo large in the lives of their children for the good or bad. My Dad exposes the wreckage that can be left behind from the standpoint and through the eyes of the children. It doesn’t make these Dads bad. It just shows the consequence of their flawed lives.

My Dad went through a lot of revisions before it debuted. There is a play here. But some streamlining would help, along with some editing to make sure the critical plot turns don’t get lost in all the time shifts. Let’s consider this a workshopping of a promising idea rather than a finished product. God knows, we need stories that resonate with teenagers to keep them coming to live theater. Getting them to come to The Odd Couple or Camelot is a tough sell.

Week of 11/27/2023

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