One in the Chamber

by Les Spindle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 19, 2014

Robert Bella, Emily Peck and Heidi Sulzman
Robert Bella, Emily Peck and Heidi Sulzman  (Source:Chelsea Coleman Photography)

Marja-Lewis Ryan made a notable debut as a playwright in 2011, with "Dysnomia," at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood. The seriocomic play, about a matriarch in an ostensibly idyllic suburban household who suddenly announces to her husband and children that she is coming out of the closet, was trenchantly amusing and extraordinarily moving.

"One in the Chamber," Ryan's latest effort at the Lounge, which she has written and directs, ups the ante on the standards she set in her maiden playwriting effort. Once again, she takes a look at emotional upheaval within a loving middle-America family, while simultaneously touching on a current hot-button news topic -- this time, on issues of gun safety and gun control. But thank goodness the play avoids preaching or politicizing. It instead opts to portray a profound human drama with compassion, ironic humor, and heartbreaking immediacy. Any other implications speak for themselves.

When teenager Adam (Alec Frasier) accidentally slaughtered his beloved younger brother with a family handgun, the household was thrust into an emotional tailspin that shows no evidence of moving toward peace and acceptance six years after the tragedy occurred.

A social worker, Jennifer (Emily Peck) is appointed by the state to determine whether Adam should be taken off parole. She visits the household to interview the family members and immediately runs into the aggressive defensiveness of matriarch Helen (a bravura turn by Heidi Sulzman, who was superb as the late-blooming lesbian mom in "Dysnomia").

In a heartbreaking and brave portrayal, brimming with sincerity and poignancy, the late-arriving Frasier catapults the play toward its shattering climax.

High-strung is far too mild a word to describe the edginess that Helen brings to the family dynamics, and which Jennifer is challenged to cut through. Feigned pleasantries and breaks for bourbon and beer are challenges Jennifer faces from the family members, as she attempts to gain the impressions she needs to file her report.

Helen is obsessed with the distraction of trying to bring her disheveled house into order, shuffling about while ostensibly being interviewed by Jennifer. Teen daughter Kaylee (Kelli Anderson), who is aggressively rebellious but clearly heartbroken and lost, gradually releases her defenses when opening up to the compassionate Jennifer.

The patriarch, Charles (Robert Bella) is more cooperative to Jennifer on the surface, but he likewise avoids direct questions and drudging up details of the tragedy. The toddler Ruthie (Fenix Isabella, in a superb portrayal) displays youthful zeal, while her exuberance and energy convincingly suggest the hyperkinetic state of emotional malaise hanging over the entire family. In a heartbreaking and brave portrayal, brimming with sincerity and poignancy, the late-arriving Frasier catapults the play toward its shattering climax.

The pitch-perfect ensemble, under Ryan's nuanced and assured direction, is altogether superb. The production is further enhanced by Michael Fitzgerald's intricately detailed set and Jenn Burkhardt's ambient lighting. It's no small complement to compare this powerful work to "Rabbit Hole," David Lindsay-Abaire's indelible drama about the faces and ramifications of grief following a family tragedy.

"One in the Chamber" runs through Sept. 7 at the Lounge Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. For tickets or information, call 323-960-7724 or visit www.plays411.com/chamber.