In his program notes for Hella Fresh Theater’s Osceola, now getting its premiere as part of Philly Theatre Week, playwright John Rosenberg says he never met his maternal grandmother, but was “fascinated in trying to fathom who gave birth to my mom.”
Osceola, then, is an imagined family narrative. The play, mostly delivered in monologue, is an encounter between Rosenberg’s grandmother Anne (Jennifer Summerfield) and Anne’s brother-in-law Leland (Rosenberg). On his birthday, Leland’s feelings get hurt by something his brother (Anne’s husband) said to him. He reacts by running off to some family land near an abandoned silver mine. Anne has been tasked with smoothing things over. As Leland disengages and evades Anne’s charms, she tirelessly works to win him over and get him to come back down to a surprise party with his family.
Remember the time…?
Surely, this is mundane territory for a play. Luckily, Rosenberg is proving himself a master of the one-scene two-hander. As in last fall’s Autopia, Rosenberg has a knack for teasing out the things that often lie in the subtexts of conversations. He understands that someone can be trying to exert control, empathize, play games, and show love—all in the same monologue. He also shows us that these underlying motivations don’t make what is being said any less true.
There isn’t much in the way of big reveals or climactic action. We see the myths of family lore unspooling on stage. If you could imagine an origin story for this play, it might be “Remember that time Grandma got Uncle Leland to come down from the mine for his own birthday party?” In this world, something as simple as a pair of work boots becomes a totem of family connection. We also get the rare opportunity to see how deep non-blood family relations can run: Anne swiftly navigates the complicated dynamics between her husband, his brother, and their late father.
Heady, low-key thrills
In the wrong hands, this could surely be a slog. Anne carries the show and often has to interrupt herself with non sequiturs to keep the conversation going and the dramatic tension alive. Summerfield oozes earthy charm and goodwill from the second she steps on stage. Pretending that Leland has to come home for a dinner party with the Rockefellers, Anne is an Auntie Mame from the 1960s southwest. While Leland says only a few lines, Rosenberg imbues his character with intention and humor. While the show is very much driven by Anne’s dialogue, they manage an incredible chemistry onstage that feels more push-and-pull than you’d expect. Rosenberg demonstrates how to do a lot with very little, and Summerfield delivers subtle care through exuberance and teasing.
The stage is simply set with some logs, an old chair, a few magazines, and sunflower seeds. The backdrop is plastic sheeting spray-painted with some mountain-esque graffiti. Hella Fresh’s heady style and low-key aesthetics might not be everybody's cup of tea, but I find them to be a thrilling addition to Philadelphia’s theater scene.
What, When, Where
Osceola. Written and directed by John Rosenberg. Through March 1, 2020, at Papermill Artist Space, 2825 Ormes St., Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or hellafreshtheater.com.
Although Papermill Artist Space itself is wheelchair accessible, some folks with mobility aids may have trouble with nearby sidewalks.