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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Helix

Or: Sophocles meets Sam Hunter


By Hillary Flynn


We all keep secrets. From our parents, our peers, our friends, our authorities. Sometimes they can be safely kept hidden, and molder in darkness till they have no harm in them. Sometimes they eat away at your conscious and make your life a misery. And sometimes they just bide their time in their hiding places waiting to pool out from under doors and rap against windows in the dead of night and pull apart everything you through was safe and secure.


This is last kind of secret curls itself around the home of the Casters, an upstanding politically active family in Illinois. David (Baer), a viceless all-american bloke, has designs upon the US Senate and is trying to whip his family into public scrutiny ready shape. This is difficult as he needs to wrangle both his precocious thirteen year old daughter Roo (Weisman) and his ancient greek reading, son Elliot (Flynn, not related) who’s more than a little...odd. He is supported, in politics if not in family matters, by his activist wife Blake, who he loves and who loves him deeply. But when David’s friend and new campaign manager Cyrus (Bernsten) on a routine background check uncovers something unexpected, then the family teeters on the brink of destruction and full out Greek-Tragedy homicide.

Helix is a tragedy of the old school, but it is a thoughtful one and designed for our modern behavior-focused sensibilities. Despite the horrifying secret that explodes like a fury upon the Caster family, their decent into darkness is more of a slip and stop, slip and stop than an outright plunge. At each moment Flynn gives us hope that all will yet be well, before cramming into our faces the metaphorical custard-pies of violence and wing-clipping cruelty. And even at the final stroke, she hands us the metaphorical towel of hope to clean up with. If you happen to be familiar with Ancient Greek Plays you will also immediately cotton on to a series of quite clever, and at times heartbreaking homages to the founding works of western drama.

Flynn has a gift for humor, as the impossible conversations circle back to some small comic misunderstanding or joke. She uses this humor to keep us from judging her creations, at least in all one light. Despite their failings the Casters are ultimately good people in a broken house trying to take actions that make sense, rather than good people smearing themselves with wrong.

Yet, in an effort to further the metamorphosis of an excellent play, I must point out that Flynn’s her intricacies of language and her adapt work at spinning a plot along, sometimes run afoul of a few careening plot points. The animosity between Blake and Cyrus and the confused events 25 years before that led to the current pickle, while clear and understandable are not quite as laced up with the main action as they could be.


Abram, the reading’s director, has subverted the conventional line of music stands and formed them into some semblance of the Caster Household, and allows our imaginations to be filled in by direct character address and gestures of affection. She also takes the bold decision to have our hero and heroine undress (though to no lewd level) as their highflying world descends deeper. I did not appreciate being threatened with the flying music stand, but am willing to accept it as a bold decision and a mark of Baer’s always admirable investment.


And what investment! Baer has a solid grasp of David’s political and familial standing and holds himself to a high level of performance as those political hopes and familial happiness is dashed. His complicated relationship with his son is particularly well defined, as is the ambiguity when, at a later point of the play, we wonder whether this shining knight may have sullied his sword with innocent blood. Only his final action lacks convincing actor-provided-evidence of why he decides what he decides, and by that point we’re so behind Baer’s efforts, and so mired in the story, that we don’t really care.


Baer is matched in his commitment to quality by Flynn’s (the actor, not playwright’s) commitment to Elliot. In addition to having a command over Elliot’s ancient greek (it’s greek to me but sounds authentic) and social difficulties he can move himself to agitation and to tears, as well as keeping all his charges struggles behind a glass wall where we see them writhing. He also manages to keep us appraised of Elliot’s decisions despite this glass wall, and for all his counter intuitive action we cannot help but find basis for it.

Weismen’s Roo is as authentic a thirteen year old you can find on the public stage, and, if I may make my prejudices’s known, much more skillful then any age appropriate actor you could find. In other hands Roo might come across as winey, immature, selfish or just plain evil. In Weismen’s hands she becomes instead a confused creature: willful certainly, full empathetic probably not, but still trying to do what’s best for her family. She also perfectly uses Flynn’s capture of “transessence” language of bold gesture and contrasting remarks that cast one’s mind back to one’s own confused youth.

Bernsten is perhaps the most constantly comedic of Flynn’s cast. Cyrus maybe a friend to the Caster’s and an incredibly perky person but he is also very much a political beast and his razor blade candy floss line delivery make the audience swarm behind him looking for the blood he draws. Sadly his past transgressions and his offstage actions could be bolstered a wee bit, and when he returns to find a very different home than the one he left in scene one, we are uncertain of where he will fall into this whole mess. This is a pity as Bernsten is more than up to the challenge of handling another helping of horror and humor.


Which leads us to Taylor herself. In the regrettably short time I have viewed her work, Taylor has thrived on modern tragedy, relishing angst from the forsaken bride to the torn lover in dangerous circumstances. She was tailer made (no pun intended) for Blake, to deal with all three sorts of secret: the kept, the cancerous, and the corrupting. Her affection and grief are artfully pitched, even behind a music stand, and we can see her struggle to keep order in herself and find self-loathing and self-justification. I personally would have appreciated some greater nuance of expression at the plays final blow, but perhaps the lack of any expression was the best response to give. I doff my hat to her, and wish her many triumphs, as I do to the whole company. Like The Matter of Nadiyah Hassan I would pay good money to see this put up in a professional house, and I would gasp with equal horror and delight all over again.

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