Families can be some crazy places.
Within these primal institutions, where psychological blocks are built and broken down, everyday nagging and picking can build into some life-imploding pressures.
In David Marshall Grant’s Pen, a mother harps at her only son as he is finishing high school, asking every other minute if he has his college admission essay done yet. It’s a kind of needling that is familiar to any high schooler or parent.
But, as seen in the strong production by Washington Stage Guild currently at the Undercroft Theatre, they also argue about something utterly more mundane: What happened to her pen, her good pen, the one she uses for the crossword puzzle.
This may seem an odd thing to argue and accuse about, but I can attest that my own family has had big falling outs over this very thing.
There are a lot of big, crucial physical moments and some telling small ones.
The very specificity of the mundane writing utensil gives the item special importance, as does the withholding of it.
Yet one is still not prepared for the jolt at the end of Act One that changes everything.
The playwright Grant is a former actor who starred with Richard Gere in Bent and was nominated for a Tony for his work in Angels in America. Like the latter play’s Tony Kushner, he’s been touched a bit with the possibilities of magic realism in his own writing (his previous work has included “Snakebit”).
The shift sends viewers for a loop particularly because Kasi Campbell’s production is so well footed in reality and her small cast so convincing.
Emily Townley is the standout as the mother, divorced and wheelchair bound because of multiple sclerosis, needy and passive aggressive in a manner that suggests she’d be a nightmare in an O’Neill classic.
Chris Stinson is solid in his role as the beleaguered son, duty bound to help his mother, but being driven crazy by her digs and demands, carefully finding his way between standing up to her and striking back.
Michael Russotto is just right as the divorced dad, a self-satisfied self-help author, disconnected with his family who has his own agenda and allegiances he hopes to foster in his son.
He, more than others, can’t see what’s right before him, but that’s an affliction everyone seems to be having in Pen.
That the drama is set in 1969 seems a little arbitrary; other than a little bit of TV audio, neither Shirong Gu’s set nor Sydney Moore’s costumes seem particularly reflective of the era. And it would seem that college as a method to avoid the draft would have come up at least once — although maybe in an affluent Long Island family, college is always the expectation (she wants him nearby at Stonybrook; dad wants him across the country at his alma mater, USC).
Still, it’s an era where a barroom can still be a place of exotic possibility for a grown couple, and a time still close enough to the War to have lingering biases against German-made cars.
Campbell’s direction is exacting – there are a lot of big, crucial physical moments and some telling small ones. When they are first arguing about the lost pen, viewers can plainly see it behind a chair leg and may be compelled to point it out.
Because of the shift in tone, much of the second act involves who’s going to find out what and when. With the impending New Year 1970 on the horizon, offering promise for all, it hangs together quite well.
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Adult language.
Pen by Washington Stage Guild continues through Nov. 23, 2014 at the Undercroft Theater at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Tickets available from 202-582-0050 or online.