Before the lights come up on Andrew Bovell’s play, the storytelling has already begun. Entering the Quadracci Powerhouse, Scott Davis’ distinctive set catches your eye: an overgrown tree dominates an otherwise pristine backyard. The family living here clearly worked hard to keep a tidy home, but trees, like children, grow in unexpected ways.
Originally set in Bovell’s home country of Australia, the American premier of Things I Know to Be True was adapted to a small town Midwestern setting — very possibly somewhere in Wisconsin. It presents the four adult children of the Price family, each of whom confronts challenges that test the ability of their aging parents, Bob and Fran, to roll with changing tides.
For much of the play, it’s unclear who is at the center of the story; one by one, each child shares a glimpse into their world in a series of direct address monologues. The fabric of their tight-knit family begins to fray with every unhappy secret revealed and long-hidden resentment brought violently to light.
Jordan Baker as Fran and Bill Geisslinger as Bob both show a wide emotional range. Deeply dysfunctional but loving parents, they trade the roles of hero and villain depending on whose favorite child is under examination.
Aubyn Heglie expertly handles her three-and-a-half page opening speech, hooking the audience and taking us on an exciting journey about leaving home, falling in love and experiencing heartbreak alone in a foreign country. Kelley Faulkner as Pip explores the struggle of the oldest sibling. Traumatized by her mother’s resentment, she dares to write her own life story. Kevin Kantor carries the emotional weight of much of the play. Kantor gives a beautiful and raw performance as someone reconciling their true identity with how their family sees them. In a strong performance by Zach Fifer, Ben is swept up by the possibility of financial success, and experiences gut-wrenching guilt after flying too close to the sun.
As each child comes crashing into their parents’ orbit, the passage of time is marked by Bob’s trio of rose bushes: they change from blossoms in full bloom to covered up, dormant stems as summer changes to fall and then winter. Like their owner, the bushes weather the seasons until circumstances tears out their roots.
Bovell’s script twists and turns, frequently setting up an expectation before subverting it, effectively making the 2 hour 20 minute play zip by. A special feature of this Milwaukee Rep production is the incorporation of physical theatre elements from Movement Director Julia Rhoads (Artistic Director of Lucky Plush, a Chicago-based dance-theater company). As the youngest daughter recounts an emotionally painful experience, she falls onto the rest of the cast, who help prop her up. Visual moments like this remind us that one child’s actions do not exist in a vacuum; the entire family is affected.
Running through March 31, Things I Know to Be True is a poignant production relevant to the kinds of family struggles discussed around dinner tables today. It offers a powerful reminder that we’d all do well to react to our loved ones with compassion in whatever time we have with them.
Go See It: Things I Know to Be True at the Milwaukee Rep, through March 31