Family reunion

Human Race Theatre reboots ‘Family Ties’

Photo: (l-r, front) Jim Stanek as Alex, Lawrence Redmond as Steve, and Eve Plumb as Elyse in ‘Family Ties’ at Human Race Theatre through June 25; photo: Scott J. Kimmins

By Jacqui Theobald

What do you suppose has been happening in the Keaton family for the last 20 years? The playwright Daniel Goldstein has created his take on the popular late ’80s sitcom and offers the world premiere at Dayton’s own professional Equity theatre, Human Race.

“It feels like a family reunion,” Eve Plumb, who plays mom Elyse, says after several early rehearsals. Although none of the Human Race cast was in the original, they have built their own interim backstories, developing and owning their adult characters.

“I felt supporting their greater connection to old and new issues was very helpful to the actors,” director Kevin Moore says.

Jim Stanek earned a standing ovation and high audience praise as Alex P. Keaton, energetic and eager. “I’ve always admired and respected him and since we’re about the same age,” Stanek says of the role, “I’ve felt many of the same things Michael J. Fox as Alex went through.”

The play is a combination of a contemporary situation, set in 2008 in Columbus, Ohio, and flashbacks to various happenings in the TV Keaton family: Alex in high school and the younger sisters good naturedly teasing him about his attempt at dating, Alex on his 18th birthday making choices his mother finds inappropriate, Alex in college, Alex in love.

The premise of the millennial scenes has Alex running for Congress, torn between coming home from New York upon his mother’s request and a possible prized TV interview set for the same time, a major conflict. There is very little of the previous issue between the liberal hippie-ish parents and the suit-wearing, ultra-conservative, young Alex, although it’s clear they continue to be political opposites.

Is it effective? Much of the audience did not question, but expressed delight. A few seemed puzzled. One overheard comment: “I think the play needs a bit more work” expresses a different point of view.

The casting is top notch, headed by Stanek and Plumb, who carries a major part of the plot. In flashbacks she establishes her strength and involvement in Alex’s life. In the final scene she squeezes out a real tear. Remember that tear, if you have an “aha moment.”

It is also clear from the very first scene that mom dominates the rest of the family, even when everyone has grown up.

Lawrence Redmond as Steven brings fine naturalism: he remains calm yet personal, with a dash of humor, still holding dear his PBS position. He offers wisdom as a dad with an air of certainty. His scenes connecting to Alex and his married love for Elyse are convincing.

The daughters, Mallory and Jennifer, played by Thea Brooks and Sara Mackie, are both grown and married with kids. Brooks gives Mallory her flippant, edgy personality, still style-conscious and perky.

“I had more to work with,” Mackie says, “because Jennifer was only 9 and so I got to develop her as an adult.”

Maggie Lou Rader as Ellen brings a sense of believable but almost tough practicality to the brief early scenes, then a sweet loving shyness to the love story with Alex. “My character is based on the one Tracy Pollan created, only seen in the original season four. Of course, in real life, they eventually did marry and still are married.”

As always, the tech side of the production is superb. Scenic Designer Tamara Honesty shared her thoughts about recreating the original TV Keaton home on a stage: “I had to scale it down, maintain the sense of Victorian and Ohio. It is selective realism, always keeping the theatre sight lines in mind.”

Then it is up to Scott Kimmins, technical director, to build it. There’s a lot of measuring, sawing, skill, and hard work by head carpenter/charge artist Eric Moore and scenic artist Ray Zupp.

Lexi Muller is production stage manager with assistant Jacquelyn Duncan. Tara Lail is the producer.

Because of the width and breadth of the stage, with every inch significant, properties master Heather Powell had an enormous task but finds a perfect balance, neither overdone nor needing more. She and assistant Ryan Sess have established a real home, lived in and loved for most of a lifetime.

Sound designer Jay Brunner has created an audio bridge signaling the flip to flashback. A scratchy sort of rewind plus music is the consistent clue. There’s background music of the era, subtle as the best sound is.

John Rensel, the ultimate pro is the lighting designer. He does every show so carefully and appropriately, always earning high praise. Rick ‘Rico’ Stewart, production electrician, turns the designs to lights and gels in just the right places.

The tricky part of alternating eras on stage is lack of time or opportunity for many changes, which might only serve to distract. Costumer Janet G. Powell wisely doesn’t try. The women have appropriate neutral-era shirts, Alex has his uniform suit. Steven, however, gets his era-popular deck shoes with little white sport socks—a fine touch.

Moore’s direction, blocking, and other major decisions, are even more important in a never-before produced piece. His work on “Family Ties,” with a surprise at the end, is especially valuable.

If you didn’t follow the TV show, you’ll still find enough information in the stage update to feel knowledgeable. If you did, you’ll find some special tidbits. Sit Ubu, sit.

Human Race Theatre’s ‘Family Ties’ takes the stage through June 25 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Suite 300 in downtown Dayton. Tuesday–Wednesday shows start at 7 p.m.; Thursday–Saturday shows start at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25–$65, with senior discounts available. For tickets and more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit HumanRaceTheatre.org.

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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