In a scene towards the end of Catch As Catch Can by Mia Chung, Tim Phelan (Rob Yang) asks his old childhood buddy Robbie Lavecchia (Jon Norman Schneider) about his mom Roberta. Robbie responds with, “We aren’t talking right now.” That simple answer belies one of the hard-won truths at the heart of this compellingly theatrical play, which is that we are always in active conversation with our family, past and present. Both ancestors we never knew and those members we are closest to live in us through generations of inherited traits and the learned behavior of legacy.
The double casting of Robbie as his mother Roberta and Tim as his mother Theresa heightens the play’s exploration of the powerful hold that home has and the curious mutability of identity. A third actor (Cindy Cheung) triangulates the effect by portraying both Robbie’s sister Daniela Lavecchia and their father Lon. These three virtuosic actors total six characters and make the stage feel like it is populated by the full company of two neighboring families and their extended communities in working class New England. It’s Tim’s arrival back home from California that incites the forward action of the play, but Mia Chung creates a masterfully kaleidoscopic portrait of the rich foundation and congenial history shared by the blood relatives and tight-knit friends that “function” like a dysfunctional family.
I was raised in a northeastern environment right on the border of Queens and Nassau County; it was similar to the community our characters inhabit. My maternal side is basically a carbon copy of the Irish American Phelan clan, going by the surname “Sheehan” instead. Despite the relative diversity of my town, or perhaps as a result of it, the casual cruelty of offhand racist remarks could become outright battles. In one formative memory, I recall sitting on the stoop watching my Dad get into a screaming match with Mrs. Reilly from across the way in the middle of our street. She was livid that the house next door to them had been sold to an Indian family with two kids (a lovely crew) roughly the same age as my little brother and me. As the attorney who had managed the closing, my Dad was accused of being a traitor helping to drive down home values — yet another misguided fear since, in reality, value has only increased astronomically in the last thirty years. More often than not, however, this type of discriminatory communal hand-wringing remained relegated to hushed conversations around various kitchen tables at which I would sit and wince and cringe and remain embarrassingly quiet.
This is why the fascinating choice in this production, currently running at Playwrights Horizons and deftly directed by Daniel Aukin, to cast three Asian American actors to portray all of the family members adds another insightful layer of racial role-playing to the gender and generational swapping. The actors are so thoroughly convincing when displaying the performative nature of whiteness that it’s incredibly easy to cozy up to and feel affection for them. It is all the more shocking when racial slurs are spewed by the parental figures or bigotry bubbles up to the surface of warm domestic scenes because, with these casting choices, the demeaning epithets are embodied by those being othered.
As is usually the case with most domestic dramas, these characters would do better to turn the mirror on themselves because there is a stockpile of combustible powder kegs of conflict lurking around the corners of their own homes. Beneath the churn of idle chatter and mundane everyday business, there are deep wells of unspoken feelings and cracks spreading through the splintering bedrock. It is during the hustle and bustle of preparations for a Christmas party that the fault lines appear with gathering speed and force. Robbie is supposed to bring the dinner rolls but is late and not answering his phone. Daniela is picking up the slack while Roberta and Theresa scheme to set her up with a local eligible bachelor. Tim is attempting to help decorate but is sweating profusely and clearly unwell. Here the set (by Matt Saunders), which had been bifurcated horizontally into an upstage kitchen area and downstage living room complete with an antique upright piano, now seems to open up to multiple planes of existence as the trio scurries around in constant motion and the character transitions become more frequent and rapid in a flurry of activity teetering on the edge of a tipping point. A small but suggestive prop detail struck me in this sequence as a folding table with “LAVECCHIA” printed underside in bold marker was carried across the stage as though the claiming of identity were portable and capable of being propped up, struck, and put back into storage as necessary.
Finally, Daniela decides to go to the store and Tim volunteers to take a ride with her if only as an excuse to escape. When the two of them are alone in the car, all of the noisy distractions fall away and the calm invites a different form of connection. The dynamic suddenly turns painfully intimate and what happens next caused an audible shock to reverberate through the audience at the performance I attended. The crossed boundaries become immediately confusing for the characters as well. Tim confesses that he has been lying about a fiancé who doesn’t exist while his mother plows forward with wedding arrangements and plants flowers for the fictional event. This revelation stuns Daniela who retreats, which is a crushing blow to Tim in his fragile state of mental health. These blurred lines and the inadequate names for loving bonds that can’t be neatly categorized point to the play’s larger themes about where home lives and how our relationship to people and places can shapeshift on us as we evolve within and apart from those developmental units, while strangers become family and family can grow distant.
There’s nothing like a crisis to test these ties, as an opportunity to strengthen them or watch them disintegrate. The people we love can take us by pleasant surprise or profoundly disappoint us depending on how they show up and offer support if they’re able to do so at all. It is particularly devastating that Tim’s mom so readily goes along with the flawed fantasy of an impending wedding but the unholy trinity of fear, shame, and denial prevents her from engaging with his very real and acute mental illness. How can we transcend our prescribed roles without feeling lost or as though we are abandoning family when they don’t understand or agree with our choices? How can we carve out new homes for and within ourselves and still go home again? Or simply, can we? Mia Chung’s absorbing play Catch As Catch Can demonstrates that we are forever caught in the process of untying that universal Gordian knot.