American Family at Park Square Theatre

Petronella Ytsma

Carlyle Brown's new play turns on a single moment, when the bright, inquisitive, and "sassy" Mary Ellen is taken away from her mother and stepfather by her long-absent father. At that moment, warmth and life leave the young girl, replaced by a hard, cold facade that we see in the face of the adult Mary Ellen, who is looking back on these memories. It's a sharp, emotionally brutal moment, especially since Mary Ellen is being taken away because her white mother had the temerity to marry a black man in 1960s Alabama. It's also the high point of the show, making for a frustrating second act, which struggles to regain any of the emotional power we saw before. In that second half, the adult Mary Ellen (Tracey Maloney) meets her teenage half-brother Tommy (Michael Terrell Brown) for the first time. Mary Ellen's anger has taken her down a dark road, and she's searching for some kind of redemption. Tommy, understandably, is suspicious, especially after he learns the path his sister has taken. There's a lot of raw emotion and anger between the two, which at times overwhelms the otherwise fine actors, reducing all of this pain to a lot of shouting. The balance of the cast, led by Noel Raymond as Mary Ellen's mother and John Middleton as slimy absent father Billy, does solid work throughout the piece. Still, a muddled plot line near the play's end only adds to the sense that there's something missing from the experience. American Family reaches its height at the end of the first act. All the rest feels like an epilogue.

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