Gary Lennon and Chris Fields lean over the table at the diner and ask, “Hey, are you from New York?” When I say no, Fields sits back and says, “Oh. Gary and I are New Yorkers. Both born in Hell’s Kitchen.” Gary nods. The two of them were even born in the same hospital — a fact that manages to perfectly underline their strong bond formed by origin, and the connection based on home.
Home (and the search for it) is only one of the many themes in Lennon’s A Family Thing. Staged by Echo Theater Company artistic director Fields, the production opens Saturday in an Echo production at Stage 52.
The semi-autobiographical story follows the complex relationship among three brothers (played by Sean Wing, Johnny Messner, and Saverio Guerra). As the play opens, one brother is being released from jail, another is at the lowest point in his life, and a third is about to jump off a bridge. The audience quickly discovers that the felon has threatened to kill the other two upon his release.
Lennon explains that his personal narratives involving familial traumas are intricately tied with his creative narratives. “I come from sort of a broken background,” he says. “I lost my parents when I was around 11, and I have two brothers”¦ so the play’s really about me and [them].”
The youngest brother, he says, is based on himself. “He’s a writer, he’s neurotic, and very emotional.” The second brother is the rough-and-tumble ex-con who, Lennon says, is based on his brother who spent a lot of time in prison. “And the third brother”¦” he says, “He’s a 10th Avenue Willy Loman, the guy who always tries to do the right thing, but fucks up. And he’s an addict, so he’s always making the wrong choices.” The men are extraordinarily dissimilar in many ways, he says, but they share a common ground.
“They’re broken people looking to surrender and find home,” says Lennon, drawing the parallel to his own experience. “It’s because we came from such a broken home and we lost our parents at such a young age.”
Lennon has been developing A Family Thing for three years. He says it all began with a birthday card from his brother. “I hadn’t spoken to him for about 20 years.” The gesture had Lennon thinking about reconciliation.
“Even if I couldn’t rectify the relationships in my life in the real world”¦ I wanted to go and heal that [fictional] relationship [in the play],” says Lennon. He explains that he believes this exploration is where a lot of his good work stems from. “They say your life problems are your work problems, and so this is the process that started that. This play came out of that feeling.”
Fields was introduced to Lennon’s work by an Echo company member who persuaded him to see Lennon’s The Interlopers. “Gary’s writing”¦” he says, “it was great. It jumped off the page.” A few months later, he discovered that Lennon was working on a new script and invited him to do a reading and a talkback at the Echo. Fields was so impressed by Lennon’s work that he did something he admits was a bit out of character.
“We read it, and I walked right up to Gary and I said, ‘We’re going to do this play.’ But you don’t do that! You don’t promise things like that. But I loved the play; I loved what was going on with it.”
It was then that the two artists discovered just how much they had in common, and how much they spoke the same language. Hell’s Kitchen, shared mentors, and a similar aesthetic assured them that the production was going to be a good fit for both. They held auditions, intent to cast actors who could, as Fields put it, “go to the bottom,” emotionally. Both the dialogue and subject matter are intense, raw, and harsh.
However, Fields explains that directing a piece of this nature is not different from staging a less emotionally-charged drama. “Our job is to serve the play. And all the moments written have an integrity. The actor’s job is to live out those moments”¦ truthfully.”
Lennon has made many significant edits through the rehearsal process that were influenced by Fields and the cast. “One of the first rehearsals I went to,” says Lennon, “we watched it together, and after I said, “We need to cut that scene!” And he said, “Yep.” And I said, “and we need to cut that other scene!” And he said, ‘Yes’.”
Fields chimes in. “Since Gary and I are both from New York, the voices get raised”¦ I love it. Gary’s really brave and he listens to me, and if he disagrees with me, he disagrees with me. You fight the good fight. Everybody wants the same thing. We want it to be magnificent.”
“It’s been great, because one of my biggest weaknesses as a playwright is that I really tend to overwrite, and he has been chiseling at the piece,” Lennon adds.
Asked whether there were any surprises in the rehearsal process, Fields laughs and says, “It’s funny!” He admits that he was taken aback by how much humor the actors discovered, despite the violence and weightiness of the text. He also explains that some of the characters themselves have been surprising. A female character who “comes across as hard” and often delivers brutal lines of dialogue, says Fields, has surprised him. He’s come to realize that she’s the most mature character in the whole script, the most adult — something he hadn’t known about the character when they began.
There are several female roles in the ensemble, and Lennon explains that he’s always had deeply influential relationship with women. “I was very close with my mom before she passed away,” he says, “and my best friends are women. The women in the play are really another aspect of my life.” In the context of A Family Thing, the brothers are often attempting to “make home” with these women. Each of the three men is looking for some sort of love. “I think there’s a lot of beauty in that,” says Lennon.
Fields recalls a moment from his own family life that rings true with the themes of A Family Thing. “Once I was giving my mother a hard time about something. And she said, ‘Christopher. People love in the only way they know how to love, all right?’ And that, right there, is the play.”
Lennon wholeheartedly agrees.The brothers are searching to love (and to be loved) in the only way they know how — no matter how “gnarled, twisted, and damaged.” It’s this portrayal of love that both of them find so important.
Lennon repeats Fields’ words from one rehearsal: “When the lights come up, I want people to turn to the person next to them and say, ‘I’ve gotta call my fucking brother’.”
That being said, where is the line between truthful familial representation and sentimentality? And how do you avoid crossing this line? Lennon says that, as a playwright, he’s intentionally stayed away from romanticizing relationships and crafted a narrative that lacks any definitive hero. All relationships are raw and complex, and no character’s viewpoint is valued above the rest.
For Fields, the lack of sentimentality comes from the honesty of the script — and from Lennon’s Hell’s Kitchen roots. Directorially, he urges his actors to keep up the pace. Slowing down and languishing in the emotion, he says, will turn to sentiment quickly. “And we can’t have that.”
For Lennon, the play is really an unsentimental exploration of family, and how family and home can mean many different things at different stages of a life. The three brothers may come from a “home,” or a common experience (like that of the playwright and director themselves), but each may be struggling to find what home has come to mean in their lives.
“That’s the other thing I want people to get out if this. The greatest family you have is the family that you make. Coming from a family that didn’t really work for me, I can say now, as a man, that I have an amazing family and none of them are blood-related.” Lennon truly exemplifies the journey of his own characters; he has finally arrived at a home of his own.
A Family Thing, Echo Theatre Company at Stage 52, 5299 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles 90019. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 7 pm. Through March 17. Tickets: $30. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. 877-369-9112.
***AllÂ A Family Thing production photos by Danielle Larsen
Dani Oliver is a freelance writer, playwright, and theater director in Los Angeles. She’s also the editor of Daily BR!NK (dailybrink.com), a USC grad, and a big fan of prosecco.