Broken into scenes named for the five stages of grief, demons. is a self-styled dark comedy that dips more frequently into the tragic. It’s precisely about the incommensurable nature of grief, the way our various vocabularies of family and faith and love are never quite enough to explain what we’re feeling; the way grief doesn’t structure itself into neat stages no matter what the books tell you; the way that generational trauma winds its way into interpersonal trauma until sometimes you can’t even tell what you’re trying to talk about, let alone express it. (Even the title—insistently lowercase, with that emphatic period at the end—speaks to how sometimes you can describe what’s actually happening in the simplest possible terms, and yet not find a comprehending audience. Demons, really? demons. Yes.) That’s especially so in this case, where the lost patriarch had strikingly different relationships with those closest to him, so everyone in his family is coming at their grief from a different angle: He cheated on his wife; he was at best distant from and at worst abusive to his son; but he was a best friend to his daughter. The three chief mourners are coming from such different places, they hardly even know how to grieve together—or how to share their grief with the two son-in-laws who fill out the family unit.
Keelay Gipson, who both writes and directs, says in a script note that the play “is ultimately about the inability to communicate effectively. Especially while grieving.” It seems like he’s trying to literalize the monstrousness, the weird poignancy, the absurdity of grief—and often of families generally—through a metaphor-made-literal of haunting and then of demon possession. And when actual demons show up midway through the play, they absorb all that absurdity, that strangeness, even that weird poignancy.
But demons. the play loses its grip even as it attempts to dramatize the experience of losing one’s grip. When those demons show up, the energy and emotions that the family is trying to work through dissipate into multiple directions: In one strand, an almost entirely separate black comedy about intergenerational conflict between father and son demons (demons, too, as it turns out, have complex relationships with their domineering fathers). In another, a deep monologue on depression, delivered into a blackout void. In the third, the main action of the play continues, with revelations of further family secrets. It feels like the piece gets stalled in trying to crack open its intentionally melodramatic realism into something more theatrical, more weird. I realize the irony of asking for something more coherent when the theme is the way that cohesion is itself impossible—but it feels like Gipson is trying to go in one too many directions, and the play ends up both racing to its final moment of genuine emotional release and lingering too long in the less compelling byways.
demons. starts in an apparently realist place. (Realist, albeit explicitly archetypal; the characters are identified by their roles, not their names: Mama [Gayle Samuels]; Sissy [Paige Gilbert], and Bubba [Donell James Foreman] for her children; Bruh-in-Law [Christopher B. Portley] and Bubba’s “Friend” [Ashton Muñiz] for their respective husbands. The only one who gets an actual name is the demon, Danily [Joseph Lymous].) We’re in Mama’s somber living room after the funeral of her husband, and Mama is not happy about the preacher’s performance. Gayle Samuels as Mama leans in to the inherent melodrama of the moment; it’s the character more than the actor who’s chewing the scenery, and the eyerolls of her two grown children are almost audible. Sissy, Bubba, and their husbands, while trying to allay their mother’s complaints about the funeral, are clearly tense in their mother’s house and around one another. Tensions run high, and then that uneasy energy starts to filter into the atmosphere. Lights flicker. Sissy cheats at cards, gets caught, and has a meltdown that takes her to the edge of unhinged. And then, as a stage direction reads, “the spirit world and the physical world collide,” and we learn that this family is actually being haunted by a demon.
That demon, Danily, is new at this, and his father, DD (the voice of Jason Veasey), is a higher-level demon administrator who can’t resist his impulse to backseat-drive Danily’s haunting. So when Danily starts to feel annoyed at the parental intrusion of his while he’s trying to haunt Sissy, he backs in to possessing Bubba instead. For the second half of the play, the other characters see Bubba, but the audience sees Danily: an eye-poppingly bright red monster (created by puppet designer Cedwan Hooks) who towers over the rest of the cast and draws on Sesame Street, Where the Wild Things Are, the Minotaur, and some sort of evil buffalo all at once. Danily’s masked reactions are both humorous and menacing, and Lymous makes the most of Danily’s genuine bafflement at the situation in which he finds himself; you feel the way that the demon himself is navigating two emotional landscapes at once. Meanwhile, Bubba has landed in some sort of limbo, where he’s better able to voice his feelings—and take some guidance—from DD than from his own mother, sister, or husband.
The ”limbo” scenes—Danily getting briefed by his father and Bubba when out of his body—take place in a shallow space on the roof of the living room that comprises the main set (the starkly black-and-white set, which feels almost like a shadow box framed by the Connelly’s gilded proscenium, is by Yu Shibagaki), and it’s in the transitions in and out of that alternate physical realm that the play loses steam. Both of those scenes draw us away from the narrative for too long, and the information—both about Bubba and about the family backstory that we learn as DD briefs Danily—doesn’t feed back into the rest of the piece in a way that helps connect the realms.
In fact, the sharp physical separation undercuts the sense of realms colliding; they start to feel like an entirely different play. Gipson keeps the acting styles very disparate in the different arenas as well. Gilbert, Samuels, Foreman, Muñiz, and Portley, in their scenes together, are amped up, a little overmodulated; it’s hard for them to shift gears into the surreal because they’re already playing at fever pitch. The demons, by contrast, are lighter and drier together, and Foreman’s limbo monologue is almost uninflected in its straightforwardness.
The play succeeds most in the scenes where we do feel that interpenetration, the scenes where the metaphor hulks among them, bright red and furry against the black-and-white couch, menacing them, baffled by them, and trapped among them all at once, with an oddly endearing sweetness despite all his monstrous qualities. It’s the great alien, alienating quality of grief, that nonetheless admits for tenderness, and faint glimpses of actual connection.
But, for me, the deepest glimpse of actual connection comes in a late-night encounter between Bruh-in-Law and Bubba’s “Friend.” Both feeling an incomprehensible distance between themselves and their partners, two men who have nothing in common “decides to co-exist in silence,” and on that mutual acceptance of their distance, they build a fragile trust. This may be the first time the two have really talked; this may be the most honest conversation that happens in the play. Portley and Muñiz, not expected here to play mixed emotions over the loss of their father-in-law, find some communion and community. I’m not sure this is where we’re meant to find hope in this play, but that may be the moment that stays with me.