Isis Productions takes on playwright Nicky Silver for the second year in a row, and The Lyons is as much a hit as last year's Too Much Sun was a miss.
The difference is that Silver -- best known for his nineties comedies The Food Chain, Pterodactyls, and Raised in Captivity -- recaptures his trademark darkly farcical tone and his favorite subject, dysfunctional families, in 2012's The Lyons.
Relationships good and bad
Good relationships in the company help make the play’s bad relationships meaningful. Regular Isis director Neill Hartley is joined by artistic director Renee Richman-Weisband as Lyons matriarch Rita, with returning favorites John Zak as her husband Ben and Kirsten Quinn as daughter Lisa. The first act occurs in Ben's hospital room. Dying of cancer has unleashed Ben's relationship-related frustrations: Rita plans on redecorating their house as soon as Ben passes, Lisa’s an alcoholic single mother, and their son Curtis (Kyle Fennie) invents lovers to avoid acknowledging how desperately lonely he is. Ben and Rita have made the situation worse by not telling their kids of Ben’s illness until his final days.
Though too young for the role, Zak makes Ben convincingly -- and hilariously -- a man unwilling to exit life quietly. He rails at them from his bed like King Lear, navigating the tricky line between Ben's humorously profane complaints and his pain and fear. A little moment like the phone ringing and Ben saying, "God, I hope it's death," would be a hollow punchline without his imminent death feeling real. Richman-Weisband makes a suitable foil: "Who are you to get into hell?" she asks her dying husband. "You're just a little man with little sins."
The obliviousness of Rita and the kids makes The Lyons deliciously uncomfortable as well as funny, because Hartley doesn't let them play Silver's barbed dialogue just for laughs.
Act II's first scene leaves the hospital room to focus on Curtis, and it almost feels like another play. But this change in perspective boldly sets up the play’s final scene, which finds another family member in a hospital bed. Chase Byrd appears as Brian, a realtor trying to sell an apartment to Curtis, but what occurs between them is shocking and takes The Lyons in a surprising, albeit still dark, direction.
Silver has no glib answers for how to get along with family or navigate lives stalled by disappointment. The character who might provide some insight in a lesser play, Meg Trelease’s acerbic nurse, puts them in their place: "You think I'm gonna have some big insight into the wreckage of your life?" The earth, she bluntly reminds them, "continues to spin."
To Nicky Silver's credit and thanks to Isis Productions' fine work, Rita, Lisa, and Curtis suggest in the play's final moments that they might find some hope to pull them forward. It's not gifted to them, though, and that's what makes The Lyons ring true: to reach a happy ending, this family must work at it.