Rand Bishop’s play The Viewing received a public reading about a year ago. Back then, its most attractive features were its loquacious lead characters and some crackling, consciously witty dialogue. But its limited one-act structure raised questions of thematic development and exposed a lack of forward momentum in the action and characterizations.
Now The Viewing has received its first formal staging by Rhubarb Theatre, and it’s interesting, to be sure. But while the good things from the early draft are intact—and it’s instructive to see these characters actually moving around, under the direction of Julie Alexander—the problem of dramatic thrust hasn’t been solved.
Billed as “a dark comedy about family values,” The Viewing is set in Nashville at the home of the Sanders family. Patriarch Marvin has just died, and former rock-star son Marcus returns home from Atlanta to pay his respects. His sister, Marilee, who has played nursemaid to her parents for many difficult years, greets Marcus with a manic mixture of affection and resentment. Old wounds are reopened, Marcus falls off the wagon after two years of sobriety, and suddenly Daddy’s ghost pays a visit, seen and heard only by Marcus.
While the play has plenty of inciting incidents, as old family business is rehashed and bitter memories surface, it lacks any significant sense of movement of the characters toward change or resolution. The ghost device, which offers initial intrigue, ends up functioning as a merely curious distraction, with the script winding to a desultory conclusion. Even the constant Marcus/Marilee bickering, which holds inherent drama, eventually suffers from overkill.
That makes The Viewing essentially an exercise in verbal gymnastics, with Bishop’s dialogue providing some legitimate laughs. When the cast, led by Holly Butler and Marc Mazzone, gets off the occasional catchy bon mot—or just as often descends into downright hostility—we’re entertained. Yet it’s unclear which character Bishop considers his protagonist. Marcus is the logical choice based on the rising action; but Marilee seems to have so much more to say, given her wild swings between teary-eyed family nostalgia and the hard reality of her prospects.
Worse, though, is that the play carries more than its share of contrivances. The message ultimately related is this: families have a lot of dysfunction, and every member has his/her own view of what happened. If only this salient theme were demonstrated more to us through action, rather than explained away by dialogue. Shane Caudill’s too-bright lighting does nothing to reinforce the play’s confessional mood, on a set that is a hodgepodge of contemporary non-design.
Good supporting performances come from David McGinnis, as a goofy but lovable neighbor, and John Silvestro, who capably (and paradoxically) brings the ghost to life. And as Marcus’s daughter, Ashley Beam does commendable work, even though she’s playing a typical 18-year-old who’s supposed to offhandedly—and credibly—drop the name of filmmaker John Frankenheimer. They’re bright spots in The Viewing, a mixed-bag effort whose overall dramatic development is decidedly blurry.