photo: Courtesy Road Theatre Company
photo: Courtesy Road Theatre Company
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Reviewed by Bob Verini
Road Theatre Company on Magnolia
Through Nov. 7
Lisa Loomer writes Issue Plays. She may not set out to do so quite so baldly, but there it is. Her works tend to be identifiable, and tend to last in the memory, as copiously researched treatments of specific ongoing problems in contemporary American life. And, by the way, she tends to be the only dramatist taking up those issues, which is to her everlasting credit.

Anyone concerned about ADD – the kids diagnosed with it, the parents coping with it, the total chaos when it comes to determining the best ways of treating it – need look no further than Loomer’s Distracted for a practically encyclopedic overview circa 2007. The working out of the main characters’ problems came across as too pat and naive, but you left the Taper enlightened, not to mention grateful that a playwright had both done all the grunt work and made her report so entertaining.

The published text of Expecting Isabel describes “an ‘Alice-in-Wonderland-esque’ odyssey through the booming baby business,” as a childless couple explores fertility and adoption options. Even more timely is the examination of undocumented aliens in Living Out, a moving tale of otherness, both of the class and culture varieties, that centers on nannies and the wealthy working moms who – edgily – embrace them.

Now comes Loomer’s Homeless Youth Play, the intriguingly titled Homefree  with its hints of both a state of precarious survival and a desired end goal. Her central trio, in descending order of age, are J.J. (Barret Lewis), a braggart skater type with a hair-trigger temper compounded by drugs and booze; Franklin (Lockne O’Brien), a closeted gay; and Breezy (Gabriela Ortega), a 16-year-old pregnant Mexicana desperate to have her baby out of the clutches of an abusive stepdad.

Their lives are full of incident – they’re always going places and things never stop happening to them, quite well staged by director Michael Matthews – and yet Homefree feels curiously static. The trio have only the vaguest, least realistic of ambitions in mind (J.J. wants to be a rock star in L.A.; yeah, right), and don’t engage in much self-discovery that can lead to change or growth. This could be a function of their being homeless and spinning in place, but it’s actually true of the Issue Play generally: Having set up the essential conflicts and done all the research, Issue Play authors often find it difficult to propel the action dramatically. It’s as if doing so would imply a solution to a problem which, going in, one knows is basically intractable.

Loomer gets mileage from the contrast between two real-life Oregon communities into which she brought her reporter’s ear and poet’s heart. The kids depart Medford, a conservative burg about as hard on youthful sloth and rebelliousness as it could possibly be, for famously liberal bastion Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The journey doesn’t play out as predictably red state/blue state, and certainly isn’t a trip down the Yellow Brick Road to Oz. It’s more like A Tale of Two Shittys, since there’s plenty of anti-transient sentiment in Ashland, where a three-strikes-and-you’re-out ordinance ensures that Bard-loving tourists won’t be overly aware of hoboes and druggies. The point -– that the homeless are welcome almost nowhere — is strongly made but (again) isn’t especially dynamic, dramatically speaking.

Characters, too, are at a disadvantage in Issue Plays, since they tend to be drawn as types rather than idiosyncratic personalities, and the onus is on the actors to flesh them out. Matthews is extremely successful with Ortega in this regard. If there’s any single personal thread running through this depressing journey, it’s Breezy’s alternately yearning for support while finding doors closed on her, and Ortega plays this batted-around human with variety and nuance.

Franklin’s traits are a bit thinner, O’Brien not making a strong enough impression, while Lewis overdoes J.J.’s  bravura altogether. Matthews could have helped the latter find moments to falter and even fall apart,  instead of overrelying on his aggressive slap-hands motion, an ongoing and soon boring one-man fistbump.

Steve Apostolina and Elizabeth Herron carry out the various adults capably, but the truly complex characterizations come from Chelsea Averil and Donald Russell as matched pairs of spirits let loose on our protagonists. They chill us in Medford as clown-masked, feral predators, and surprise us in Ashland as platitude-spouting free spirits with more of a self-interested agenda than they initially let on.

The most pungent homeless character I’ve ever encountered is May in Richard Greenberg’s Eastern Standard (1988). She’s a bag lady carelessly adopted, and just as rapidly discarded, by a troupe of Manhattan yuppies summering on Long Island. Greenberg’s doesn’t qualify as an Issue Play per se, and if it did its Issue would be the plagues of today’s young moneyed class. Still, in May he forges a believable, lightly schizo human castoff whose status as a “type” never blurs her individuality. (Especially as movingly executed by the late Anne Meara in the original Broadway incarnation.)

None of the characters in Loomer’s new play, I suspect, will stay with me as vividly as Greenberg’s fabulous creation. But I am glad we have Loomer once again applying her voracious appetite for research to one of the most vexing of American dilemmas, as always with insight, compassion, and even-handedness.

Road Theatre Company, NoHo Senior Arts Center, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun.,2 p.m.; through Nov. 7. Running time 2 hours, 10 minutes, one intermission.