A mother asks, 'What's it like, being gay?' This isn't a question we frequently hear in today's society, but it's one of many issues tackled in Cocktails & Leachfields, an emotional, heartwarming tale about one family's struggle to reunite after existing through years of hate, sorrow and indifference.
Set in a small New England town, Leachfields is told through the eyes of Amanda Collins, played pristinely by Austine Howard. The play opens on the evening of Halloween as Amanda begins planting bulbs in her garden, or leach field as it's referred to, with the hopes that the garden will blossom in the coming spring. Her world soon becomes a whirlwind rollercoaster as her son T.J. (Freddy Bosche) returns home, after being gone for nine years, with his boyfriend Nick (Cameron Graham.) What is at first a joyous homecoming eventually becomes an event fraught with tragedy as Amanda's alcoholic husband Tom (Albert Stroth) drunkenly returns home and quickly rejects his son, with disastrous results. Amanda must now make some monumental changes in her own way of thinking, so that a similar tragedy does not befall her daughter Iris (Tarah Arnold) who has some unflattering news of her own.
Kia Hellman, who wrote and directed Cocktails & Leachfields, provides us with both an enchanting narrative and a solid ensemble that performs like a finely oiled machine. Filled with brilliant dialogue and lines that I will be quoting for the rest of my life, Hellman moves us to places that we are not often taken in a world filled with American Idol and Scary Movie. This is not a play that tells us to be tolerant. It is a play that shows us the tremendous joy that comes with a life lived unashamed.
This is a cast that shines and at the center of it is Austine Howard, who plays Amanda. Howard's performance is filled with love and an utterly charming vulnerability that immediately puts the audience at ease. With Howard, we know we are safe. She is a mother whose journey is discovering her own point of view and she takes us there with a nuanced performance that is so steeped in reality, we believe that we are not an audience, but a nosey neighbor peering through the bushes.
Her guardian angel along this journey is Nick, played by Cameron Graham, who succeeds in being a stabilizing force in a play filled with charming outlandishness. Graham strolls through the play with such an angelic presence that one might leave the show wondering if they actually saw a halo behind him. In my favorite line of the play, Nick says to Amanda, 'Everyone has the right to live a life unashamed.' Graham adds an exclamation point to this theme by delivering a performance that is indeed unashamed. Nick is the conscience of the play and if it were not for the soulful and powerful presence of Graham, it might not work. Luckily, he gives us a poetic and ethereal take on Nick without the pretentiousness that so many actors might sway towards.
The rest of the cast is just as superb and great deal of credit must go to Kia Hellman for finding such a strong group of thespians. Freddy Bosche enchants us as the prodigal son who returns to the family dressed as Dorothy from Oz, yet exits convincing us he might be the most normal of them all. Albert Stroth succeeds in giving us an alcoholic father so deep in pain, we cheer for him to heal rather than jeer him for his hate. That is a tremendous testament for a character written to be so horrible. Along for the ride is Sara, (Ann Burk) a sultry neighbor who will have the men of the audience wishing they lived in New England; Grace, (Harlene Marshall) Amanda's mother whose dry wit and unabashed nature reminds us of the feisty grandmother we wish we all had; and Bonnie, (Caroline Freppel) who gives the audience lots of laughs as the slightly eccentric and ungrounded neighbor who has had more husbands than she has fingers for her rings. Rounding out the cast is the character of Iris played spectacularly by the lovely Tarah Arnold. Ms. Arnold succeeds in effectively stealing every scene she is in with a sassiness that is so endearing I found myself gleeful every time she walked on stage. She goes to the heights of vaulting emotion just as the audience finds themselves begging for it and delivers the catharsis of the play by saying what should remain unsaid.
Kia Hellman has delivered a masterful work of art in Cocktails & Leachfields. She provides drama and themes very akin to Tennessee Williams with the levity and heart that we would expect from Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. My only qualm is that this is a play that begs to be let out of the confines of its space. It should be played to audiences of hundreds upon thousands, for it is art that is both sincere and epic in its scale. This is a play with quite the successful future ahead of itself. Be the first to see it!
Cocktails & Leachfields runs April 21-May 7, 2006. Performances are at the Santa Monica Playhouse at 1211 4th St. in Santa Monica on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (April 21-30: Fri, Sat at 8pm and Sun at 4pm; May 5-7: Fri, Sat and Sun at 8pm. Tickets are $20. Running time is 110 minutes with intermission. Ample street parking, wheel chair access, and concessions are available.
For information and reservations, call (323) 960-7846
RESERVE ONLINE: www.plays411.com/cocktails