A crucial element of our charming national meltdown has been the realization, seemingly en masse, that various institutions for quite some time were heartily engaged in lending people more money than they could ever pay back. In the case of Liz (Sara Richardson) in Malachy Walsh's new Beyond the Owing, the knee-buckling sums involved are in the form of student loans. Liz, it turns out, is entering adulthood with the financial equivalent of an anvil tied around her neck.
Not that you'd know it at first. In the opening scene she's with her fiancé, Sutton (Sasha Andreev), who has bought her a string of pearls to go with her engagement ring. They're young New Yorkers, employed at a level below their fancy grad-school degrees but with a shining future seemingly in front of them. Sutton, a pragmatist, knows Liz carries some debt but figures it's manageable, much like his own.
An Easter visit to California to hang with Liz's mother, Ruth (Delta Rae Giordano), brings things from a simmer to a scalding boil. Director Genevieve Bennett's cast captures the bizarre, queasy emotional cloud of a strained family visit, and Jeremy Wilhelm's wide, ambitious set perfectly captures a homey yet somehow tawdry brand of middle-class American existence.
Giordano is a subtle heartbreaker as a single mother who is profoundly bungling her transition to an empty nest. Ruth at first is all yucky idiosyncrasy: Her yapping dog is out of control, her fridge is filled with gnarly rotting food that she declines to throw away, and her roof has sprung a leak that she refuses to deal with.
Giordano paints her as a stubborn weirdo, clinging with an iron grip to her strangeness but slowly revealing the yawning pit of need (directed at her daughter) that drives her actions.
Liz is understandably tightly wound before the magnitude of her debt is finally revealed to Sutton. Richardson white-knuckles it through an oddly harrowing scene with a supercilious wedding planner (Leif Jurgensen, with a tinge of the funnier aspects of Kafka), before the ground just about literally falls out from under her (courtesy of the set designer).
After halftime, things begin to meander. There's all sorts of misplaced, barely concealed hostility among the California contingent (Andreev displays the slow-boil exasperation of the in-law encountering turbulence he could do without), with old friend Trisha (Nicole Devereaux) alternately stirring the pot and trying to calm things down. Liz opts for near-catatonia as a response to her troubles, Ruth becomes inexplicably fixated on the prospect of preparing a pie, and Sutton retreats into the Y-chromosome sanctuary of angry home repair (banging around on the roof as though trying to bring it down).
The problem becomes one of focus, and the disparate elements playing out here don't really cohere into a whole. Liz and Sutton's relationship seems in doubt, though we're not given enough previous emotional sustenance to much care (Richardson turns in good work, though it's a limited palette in a character defined by passivity and evasion). Finally Ruth's anguish comes to the fore, along with her anger over having her daughter move away and leave her alone, but we're also asked to digest watered-down dialogue between Liz and Trisha over what it means to settle down before one's dreams are realized, or finding one's dreams dashed, or something along those lines.
As a new work, Beyond the Owing achieves a respectable fraction of its ambitions. It's a play about the shackles of debt, the no-exit maze of the past, and the burden of being needed. If it doesn't cohere enough to live up to its potential, it points us in a potent emotional direction. And as for those banks and sundry lenders, it's probably time to start investing in pitchforks and torches.