Ghosts of Fathers Past: Fathers and sons butt heads at eta

(courtesy of eta Creative Arts)

“You think six feet of dirt means something?” quips the ghost of Leon Goldwater’s trumpet-toting father in eta’s new production of “Fathers and Sons.” The essence of the story is encapsulated in this sentence. Although the show is not a remake of the original Russian classic, it does explore much of the same emotional terrain.

Under the direction of Kemati J. Porter, the play opens on the home of Marcus Goldwater (Mark H. Howard), a young writer and veteran of the Iraq War, whose son has just gone missing and whose heartbroken wife walked out the door shortly thereafter. To fill the absence, Marcus’s father Leon (Dale Benton) comes to stay with him, quite literally bringing the baggage of his own father in tow. The ensuing story takes place over one evening of weighty conversation, as Marcus waits by the phone for the daily call from a detective he has hired to find his son. While the bulk of the story centers on the relationship between Marcus and Leon, the ghost of Leon’s father Bernard (George C. Stalling) intermittently cuts in, and Marcus’s recollections of his marriage pull his wife Yvette (Olivia Charles) back onstage.

A tale of the tendency of familial history to repeat itself, “Fathers and Sons” is grounded in astonishingly solid
performances, with each actor embodying, but never overacting, his character. Howard is restrained in his portrayal of a fragile and exhausted man at the cusp of losing it all. When he does lose grip of his self-possession, the process feels organic rather than schizophrenic. As the frustrated son who has given up on his father, Howard’s chemistry with Benton is instantaneous and familiar. Benton’s Leon is awkward in his search for redemption, but not awkwardly depicted. When Leon finally gets his moment of salvation, one cannot help but feel catharsis.

Charles’s and Stalling’s performances, while not as central as those of Howard and Benton, can hardly be called minor. The latter adds a needed dose of humor to the play, never losing the sparkle-eyed wisdom death has brought his way. Charles’s Yvette infuses the story with a touch of femininity, while avoiding the stereotyped female character as either a source of endless, humorless practicality, or a fount of silly romance.

The actors are helped along by the way the play, written by Michael Bradford, manages to deal with highly emotional material without dipping into the sphere of schmaltz. Bradford doesn’t rely on the ease of tired artistic platitudes, and there truly are no cringe-worthy lines in the production. Those that come out as particularly poetic are simple, satisfying, and within the realm of reality.

“Fathers and Sons” did hit a few technical snags, with some awkwardly disjointed trumpeting piped in to correspond to Charles’s playing. The set, which involved two poles indicating the walls of the house, occasionally obscured the actors. On the whole, however, these obstacles were both forgivable and forgettable, reduced in importance by the captivating characters and the tension of the story.

Like its Russian counterpart, “Fathers and Sons” explores the meaning of the ties that bind generations of men together. The story reminds us that twin lights of hope and the possibility for redemption glow behind the immediacy of chaos.
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Through April 4. (773)752-3955.