Inside a suburban New Jersey hospital, the Baker family has come undone. Crisis brings them together, but what will keep them together? Playwright Michael Slade provides clues with wonderfully relatable authenticity and astute, unresolved ambiguity in his new original play “Family Shots,” an excellent, touching comic drama superbly presented in its world premiere at the Loft Theatre courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company.
Recalling Nicky Silver’s comedy “The Lyons” coupled with the quiet sophisticated intimacy of Richard Greenberg (“Three Days of Rain”), “Family Shots,” deftly helmed by Race producing artistic director Kevin Moore, concerns the heart health of patriarch Sam (Randy Brooks), a plastics entrepreneur and frequent tennis player whose seemingly fit body has been driven to the breaking point due to Viagra. Sam’s fussy, self-absorbed wife Marsha (Colleen Zenk) and concerned, devoted son Aaron (Corbin Bleu) try to make sense of it all, but the unexpected quality time they now share and prize with Sam eventually opens old wounds.
Slade, in a refreshing departure from his dark, disturbing and polarizing dramas “Under a Red Moon” and “Gingerbread Children” previously presented by the Race, impressively turns his attention to more interesting, engaging themes of marriage and commitment. Sam and Marsha have been together 40 years. Aaron has only been married one year to retail salesman Malcolm Harrison (Adam Halpin). Creating two colorfully complex and contrasting relationships, particularly Aaron and Malcolm’s deteriorating journey involving the dangers of fiscal irresponsibility and casual flirting, gives Slade many avenues to explore that are ripe for compelling drama, especially since the action transpires in the uncomfortable confines of a hospital thereby fueling the need for venting emotions. It’s fascinating how Sam and Marsha have been rattled by too much love while Aaron and Malcolm, who believed they were ready for marriage, cope with the regret of not having loved enough. By and large, Aaron and Malcolm’s arc particularly contains some of the finest morsels of contemporary playwrighting you’ll find right now on a regional theater or NYC stage.
Bleu, who starred as energetic sidekick Chad Danforth in Disney’s megahit “High School Musical,” brings striking confidence and genuine warmth to the conflicted Aaron, a talented photographer humble enough to accept unglamorous assignments as he awaits a breakthrough. When it is revealed that Aaron’s sexuality troubled Marsha years ago and continues to bother his homophobic sister-in-law, who apparently keeps his brother from visiting even during a family emergency, Bleu expressively connects with anger, hurt and dismay. Overall, without resorting to flashiness or melodrama, he delivers a terrifically sharp, effortlessly magnetic performance solidifying his mature evolution as one of the most skilled actors of his generation.
Zenk, a three-time Emmy nominee as villainous Barbara Ryan on “As the World Turns,” is a flustered, worrisome joy brilliantly conveying the nervous agitation derived from accepting and embracing the unknown. In addition to marvelously describing the peculiar noises that arise when living alone in silence, Zenk never fails to reiterate the love Marsha feels for Sam in spite of their disagreements. It is apparent Marsha’s fragile world would surely crumble if she didn’t have her husband, her favorite travel companion and close confidant, by her side.
The remarkably understated Brooks, a TV and film veteran, is an amiable, comical source of stability amid instability. He is well aware of how vital it is for Sam to be grounded as a mediator as commotion swells around him. Brooks is basically confined to a bed throughout, but his down-to-earth presence and plain spoken insightfulness appealingly resonates.
Featured players Halpin, Arash Mokhtar as Sam’s cardiologist Dr. Patel, and Annie Pesch as Sam’s nurse Joyce truly shine. Compatible with Bleu and very strong opposite Brooks, Halpin delicately uncovers the disappointment and frustration dwelling underneath Malcolm’s chipper, materialistic Bergdorf Goodman façade. Mokhtar brings a gentle aura of suave charisma to Patel, who is attracted to Aaron but remains entirely professional. One of the play’s singular moments involves Patel and Malcolm examining Aaron’s photographs from opposite ends of Sam’s room fully aware of how much they adore the artist and his art. Pesch, in an earnestly kindhearted role reminiscent of Vivian Bearing’s dutiful nurse Susie Monahan in “Wit,” greatly supports Brooks with encouraging verve and sensitivity.
This stellar production, the best Race offering thus far this season, is expertly accented by Scott J. Kimmins’ efficient, revolving scenic design incorporating three platforms and two large walls beautifully showcasing photos at the conclusion of every scene, costumer Janet G. Powell’s fashionably modern attire, John Rensel’s proficient lighting, Nathan D. Dean’s first-rate sound design, and Sean Michael Flowers’ satisfying incidental music.
“Sometimes you have to talk. Sometimes you have to listen.” Sam’s important advice serves as the universal foundation for any productive relationship, any productive family. In order to grow closer, in order to be more understanding and forgiving of each other’s faults and imperfections, relationships must value correct communication. The road ahead for the Bakers will not be easy, but as long as there is love there is hope.
“Family Shots” continues through Feb. 8 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Tuesdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. The play is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $17.50-$45. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com or www.humanracetheatre.org.