Straight White Men brilliantly delivers its convoluted family story

A theatre review by John Busbee/Culture Buzz

December 12, 2015

In an undeniable display of visceral, spot-on reflection of life as art, Straight White Men follows the exploration of identity as three sons return home for Christmas with their dad. Straight White Men explodes onto stage at the Kum & Go Theater, reflecting the vibrancy that had been a hallmark of StageWest. Young Jean Lee’s masterful examination of entitlement and brotherly dynamics twirling around their patriarch is another Iowa premiere, and it is a powerful display of exceptional ensemble acting.

Lee’s writing style not only challenges companies producing this play, but challenges her audiences. When unencumbered by any other familial influences, the interplay of this brotherly trio continues exacting the boyhood cruelties each had subjected on the others. This show, performed in three acts without intermission, adds the element of how each son’s actions are influenced by their shared and separate respect for their father. Lee often catches the audience off guard, as laughter escapes involuntarily, sometimes robust, sometimes awkwardly unsure, as viewers often wonder if they should be laughing at some scenes. The honesty and strength of her dialogue is brought to palpable life by this talented ensemble assembled by director Todd Buchacker.

Buchacker shows the deft abilities of a seasoned director who knows how to give his talented ensemble enough leeway within the confines of his guidance to let each fully develop his own role. Each has his own demons with which to fight, while trying to project an image of more socially conscious respectability. Within the confines of their boyhood home, however, the veneer is quickly stripped, and unfiltered feelings are revealed. The results are a tumultuous story, rifting to outrageous heights, such as the family quartet clothed in adult Christmas onesies or their completely inappropriate, yet hilarious, parody singing of “Oklahoma,” often quickly dropping into sobering, breath-catching moments as the story turns on a dime.
Pre-show and between acts scene shifts are handled with flair by Travis Ness, whose undulating attention to set-preparation are a side show delight. As the father, Ed, Gary Roberts gives a well-played turn as the stern, loving patriarch. The rules are his, and he rules the house. His usual affability detonates when one son, in a fit of emotion, almost tells his father to “shut up.” That phrase is cut short in a brilliant reaction between all in that split second of having almost overstepped his place. Newcomer to StageWest, Eric Olsen, will never out-live his childhood handle, SH – – Baby. Wearing this perpetual torture like Marley’s chains, Olsen creates a very believable character. As Jake, Gabe Thompson also captures a believable, textured persona for his role, and does it with on target precision. Experienced actor Shawn Wilson truly shines as Matt, displaying a finesse and range unlike previous exceptional roles he has performed in this market. Matt is brooding, quick-witted, respectful, and so much more – a grab bag of internal conflicts, yearnings and condemnations which are pulled out, almost randomly. The arc of his evolution in Straight White Men cuts a wide swath, and is always scintillating.
With a quartet of well-cast actors, the strength of this production lies in how each interplays with the others. It’s hard not to believe that Olsen, Thompson and Wilson aren’t brothers – anyone having experienced or witnessed sibling interplay will recognize the complex bonds between these three, complete with all the indelible stains that never can be scrubbed from their histories. Roberts owns his patriarchal role, bringing everything to the play’s dynamic conclusion that will hit like a blind-side from a boxer.

Straight White Men will make its audiences laugh, catch their breath, be uncomfortable, and definitely see the world of entitlement with an enhanced perspective. Powerful theater, powerfully presented, very worthy of anyone’s time.