Arts & Culture

Myth is springboard for thoroughly modern tale

A rehearsal shot from Common Wealth Endeavors’ production of “Small and Tired.”
A rehearsal shot from Common Wealth Endeavors’ production of “Small and Tired.” Common Wealth Endeavors

Common Wealth Endeavors produces contemporary plays from English-speaking countries other than the U.S. Its current show is the American premiere of Australian playwright Kit Brookman’s “Small and Tired.” Brookman employs the Greek myth about Orestes avenging the death of his father as the springboard for a present-day drama of broken family relationships.

Brookman retains the Greek names for his characters (with one exception), but familiarity with the myth isn’t necessary as his plotline diverges widely.

Orestes, estranged and living aboard, reluctantly comes home for his father’s funeral. Orestes was sent off to boarding school at age 9, after his sister, Iphigenia, committed suicide. His mother, Clytemnestra, blamed the death on her strict, closed-off husband, who left her afterward. Electra, also greatly affected by her sister’s death, has become unhinged dealing with her own grief as well as mother’s. Electra has sorely missed Orestes but is comforted by her loving husband, Jim.

Orestes tries to bring Electra and Clytemnestra back together but finds there have been secrets kept in his absence. Some positive change seems possible for Orestes, after meeting Pylades at a bar, falling for him, and introducing him to the family. But redemption is illusive for mother, brother and sister as their troubled past constantly haunts them.

Justin Brent Johnson gives Orestes a melancholy restlessness, hinting at long-held hurts. Laurel Ullman’s Electra is a volcano ready to erupt at any moment, a fragile soul seeking a lifeline. Jane Holding’s Clytemnestra wafts about in a seemingly stunned state, yet quietly manipulates each encounter.

As one of the stabilizing outsiders, Justin Peoples makes an extremely likable Pylades, moving in his attempts to understand Orestes’ plight and humorous in his efforts to win over Orestes’ family. Linh Schladweiler also engages as Jim, an upbeat fellow whose everydayness is good for but also frustrating to Electra.

Director Gregor McElvogue shapes the 100-minute one-act as a dreamlike vision, emphasizing the script’s contemplative, often poetic dialogue and choreographing the visible scene changes in slow motion. He lets the tension boil over in several raw confrontations, but at Thursday’s preview, the pacing was generally too casual and the approach too introspective. The actors, while firm in their characterizations, seemed to play mostly surface emotions and reactions in lines that indicate greater depth. A few more performances should generate further dimensions.

Still, the production offers recognizable territory in many families’ histories, where one can feel like a weary little cog in something too big to control.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

If you go

What: “Small and Tired” presented by Common Wealth Endeavors

Where: Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Road, Durham

When: 8 p.m. Jan 8-9, 14-16, 21-23; 3 p.m. Jan. 10, 17

Tickets: $15 (seniors/students/military $10)

Info: 919-410-8631 or fromcommonwealth.com

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