Can you be 17 and 53 at the same time? I think so when your inner 17-year-old lives on forever in your mind. Memory is that powerful.
Trish Harnetiaux’s play California looks at time, death, storytelling, aging, memory, and nostalgia in a playful, unexpected way. As with the best of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, California is just a whisp of a show (only an hour long) but under its light-hearted, mysterious, oddball surface, there are some thoughtful questions and a deeper meaning to mull over after the show ends.
Set in a family car trip to visit grandparents, journeying from Washington State to California, three teenagers are piled into the backseat of a station wagon. They are uniquely themselves. Lizzie (Mallory Portnoy) is 13 and likes to record herself breathily singing on a tape recorder. Tucker (Ethan Dubin) is 14 and a little obsessed with the gruesome deaths of pioneers. Rob (Jordan Bellow) is 17 and maybe started to fall in with a bad crowd but still kinda loves his family. They are in the car in the driveway waiting for their parents (Annie Henk, Pete Simpson) to finally get this “terrible idea” of a non-stop 20-hour road trip started.
This is the era before cell phones and Nintendo Switches (my guess would be the 80s–there are Rainbow Brite and The Cure t-shirts). You had to entertain yourself. Here, they stumble upon an old radio drama and it becomes their story.
Harnetiaux’s characters have an overflowing intimacy. Playing games, overlapping as they speak, mocking with love, they are in a word, family. There is a shorthand of understanding between them. They have road trip traditions (some good—celebrating border crossings, some bad—never stopping to pee). But something serious happened on this trip which they all allude to and they are trying to reconstruct it from memory.
There’s a melancholy in the air of the play. It is after all a visit to grandparents who have cancer. But the family are, at the same time, in their own magical bubble of the car trip. The late hour and highway solitude make it feel as if they are the only ones in existence.
The play is being told from the perspective of these teenagers now and then. So, the lens keeps shifting. As time moves forward, something is lost and something gained. You may marry, have kids, find your career path but at the same time you can miss your parents who have passed away or your siblings who you don’t see.
In the same breath, you can be an adult in the present but a smell, a sight, or a memory can send you traveling back in time. A trip home will do that to you.
For a moment this play reminds me of a family car tradition of my own. When I was a child, any time my mother ever drove us into Boston there was always one highway merge she hated. We would have to quickly cross several lanes of the highway to be able to exit in short order. She would shut off the radio and demand silence. We all had to STOP WHAT WE WERE DOING and HELP HER. It was our job to make eye contact with the other drivers and signal to her when it was safe to cross into each lane. I hated doing it. It was stressful and scary, but we operated as a unit to forge safe passage.
While that highway in Boston was torn down years ago, every time I cross the bridge that replaced it I think about this family ritual. The shouting, the silence, the panic, a sigh of relief.
In a way, the highway still exists as vividly in my mind as it ever did in life. Still stresses me out too.
Since almost the entire play takes place in the car, Will Davis’s production works hard to make this confined vehicle not visually static. The set by dots is merely a set of seats on wheels which can quickly pivot. The family/seats can move as a unit which allows for reframing and the sense of momentum.
Eerie “headlights” glow from behind the “car” and flash and blackout to suggest narrative pauses, shifts in time, and different acts of the play. Oona Curley’s lighting design also throws looming shadows of the family behind them creating yet another layer of being you and not you at the same time. It also feeds into the radio drama noir atmosphere. Further, as the play shifts into the radio drama, heightened sound design by Leah Gelpe takes over and it becomes a dark and stormy night on a mountain until it’s a non-specific vast nothingness full of echoes. The scariest moment of all.
The actors acclimate themselves well to the now-and-then framework. There’s not a dramatic shift when a character moves from a teen to not. The point is a seamlessness in existence. But the performers make these teens believable by their unfettered confidence. You feel them pull back a smidge when they are older and more pensive. It’s a strong ensemble all around.
While the play moves through time and space in unusual ways, Harentiaux’s foundation is emotional honesty. What is real are these characters and their relationships. Memory may play tricks, confuse, obfuscate, but it does not erase that.