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Matthew Elam and Tosha Fowler. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis.
It is Cor Theatre’s mission to tell stories that take courage to tell, and LATE COMPANY fulfills that mission. The premise is intriguing. In the wake of a traumatic teen suicide, parents Deborah (Tosha Fowler) and Michael (Paul Fagan) host a dinner with the family who they deem responsible for their son’s death in an effort to put closure to both families’ pain. The play that unfolds touches on the subtle, often unspoken, vulnerable realities of blame, judgment, and grief, the understanding of which is vital to our ability to practice empathy and pursue connection. I’m grateful to Cor Theatre for their willingness to take this deep dive. I wish, however, that the contextual elements of the play had the same depth and focus as its emotional life.
Playwright Jordan Tannahill introduces so many dynamic elements, and in a short 70 minutes, the exploration of these elements only scratches the surface. The initial setup is complex: Bill (Tony Bozzuto) and Tamara (Asia Jackson) consent to bring their son Curtis (Matthew Elam) to dinner with Deborah and Michael about the bullying leading up to their son Joel’s suicide. Though some time has passed, Deborah and Michael are deep in grief. For Deborah, the stakes are high. Throughout the play, we see her grapple with the isolation of being a political wife, a disconnected marriage, the grief of her son’s death as well as that of unused artistic expression in her work as a sculptor and portrait artist.
Michael’s identity as a politician is such a wonderful opportunity to contextualize these people and what they believe. I was struck by the lack of political fire, especially around homosexuality. Viewpoints seem to waiver, and I had difficulty identifying the political throughline of the piece. I would love to see another draft that keeps the play’s emotional integrity, yet truly shows us how these characters move through the world.
I’m not sure it’s plausible to think that parents would allow their teenage son to walk into such an emotionally volatile situation. The meeting felt ritualistic, almost as if they were following an exercise that they’d discovered in a book on loss. I wanted an explanation of the genesis of this idea – to meet, to write letters, to present artifacts from Joel’s life – because it seemed so strange and contrived, and I spent much of the play questioning it.
The production is intimate and well-staged. Director Jessica Fisch makes the most of a difficult space with few entrances/exits to work with. Newcomer Matthew Elam gives a grounded, honest performance as Curtis – and the relationship between Elam and Fowler’s Deborah is powerful to watch. Both Deborah and Curtis are deeply connected to what happened to Joel, and ultimately, this event has them invested in each other. The play asks the question, “How well do we know our own kids?” Fowler and Fagan are present and game for the rollercoaster of discovery.
There’s something extremely powerful in the absence of Joel. I’m not confident that the playwright was fully in control of the narrative – a dangerous thing when tackling such a dark and delicate reality. What I was so hungry for, but didn’t get, was the radical acceptance of this kid who we don’t see, who we don’t know, but who took his life – likely for some combination of the reasons that these characters hurl back and forth in blame.
This piece gets most of the way to a really important place. I look forward to seeing what this company does in the future. I truly hope they keep digging, diving deep and tackling big stories with courage.