Family dynamics fuel “Independence,” a volatile drama by Lee Blessing at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre. The title refers to Independence, Iowa, the small town where the play is set, but it is also the subject of the story, as three daughters struggle to escape the psychological bonds forged by their mentally fragile mother.
Directed by Suzy Newman, the play is well cast, and each actor creates a believable woman to care about. The dialogue has enough humor, though often dark and ironic, to lighten the scenario a bit.
After being estranged from her mother for four years, Kess, the oldest sister, returns from her academic career in Minneapolis, summoned by sister Jo, who says she was knocked down and injured by their mother. Four years earlier, Kess had their mother, Evelyn, committed to the local mental hospital, where she stayed for a few months and now works as a volunteer in the arts and crafts workshop. Jo has assumed the role of her mother’s keeper, and she and Sherry, the youngest sister, live with their mother in the house where she was born and has always lived. Sherry is about to graduate from high school at 19, after dropping out at 15 to have a baby, which she gave up for adoption. She can’t wait to leave the family home.
Soon after Kess arrives, Jo announces that she’s pregnant, with no plan of getting married. Kess is gay, and that’s a delicate subject, but her mother’s anger at that and at being sent to the mental hospital has dissipated, and she’s glad to have her daughters together again. However, the reunion doesn’t turn out to be a happy one because, as the playwright says, “you can’t make a family where there isn’t one.”
All of the acting is good, and Jill Turnbow as the mother, Evelyn, manages to gradually build a memorable character. Turnbow is known for acting in and directing comedies, but this time she uses her acting skills, especially expressions and body language, to take a more serious turn. As details and hints about her marriage and what the family has been through unfold, her character becomes more complex and sympathetic.
Makayla Dubois is strong as Kess, the most emotionally stable member of the family. She tries to act as peacemaker, setting up a role-playing game suggested by the therapist, who said it’s as important to act like a happy family as to be one. But it doesn’t work in a scene that’s funny in a sad way.
Clara Jane Fulks, 17, plays Sherry as a teen rebel, choosing to ignore her mother and defy efforts to heal the family. Sherry, the self-proclaimed “first lady of meaningless sex,” has most of the sharp humor in the script, and Fulks delivers it with a sense of spontaneity.
Jo is the most conflicted sister, and Alicia Klein is good as she takes her through a transformation from worrying about taking care of her mother to realizing that she should be taking care of herself.
This all takes place in the family home, a set designed by Dave Linfield with details to reflect the character of an older Midwest house. The costumes, by Randon Pool, suit the personalities of each of the women.
This is more than a story about one dysfunctional family. Hopefully, most of our families are not as messed up as this one, but the play asks questions about what we do to our children, what we owe our parents, how we move forward, and what we leave behind.