For anyone who’s ever wished that he had grown up as the child of a major celebrity, Elliot Shoenman’s new play A Heap of Livin’ provides a powerful cautionary tale.
Ramblin’ Harry Roe, a hillbilly folk guitarist impeccably played by the formidable Lawrence Pressman, has been a spectacular success all over the world—but not in his own home. Mostly because he didn’t spend much time there. So his two daughters, instead of being inspired or entertained by the famous “good friends” that their father constantly name-drops, grew up more or less in a vacuum presided over by a loving but compliant mother (now deceased).
The two daughters, Pearl (Didi Conn) and Eden (Jayne Brook) are now middle-aged with grown children of their own, but their obligations to their families have given way to the immediate need to provide for the end-of-life care for their ailing father.
Ramblin’ Harry has come with Pearl from their homes in California to appear in an important concert in New York. They plan to stay with Eden, a successful author, in her tasteful Manhattan apartment.
Eden’s latest book, a biography of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, has not sold well and she bemoans the disappearance of neighborhood book stores. “The only place you can buy a book now is at the airport,” she claims, “so if I want to browse I have to buy a ticket—to China!”
Sister Pearl has an additional agenda for this visit. She has been running back and forth from her home in Ventura County to Harry’s in Topanga Canyon several times a week to see to his needs, take him to doctors, and hire nurses and care-givers that he routinely fires. She is exhausted, and delivers a loving but firm ultimatum to Eden: “It’s your turn now!”
But Eden will have none of it. She feels she has been doing her part by providing for her father’s living expenses. She is angry and bitter over what she perceives as a lifetime of his neglect.
“With my father, the image trumped reality,” she says. And her father, though frail, is still bombastic, chiding his daughters for not sufficiently acknowledging his massive success, his importance in his field, and his celebrity.
While the underpinnings of this drama may sound grim, this lively play is fortified by its overriding warmth, its recognizable truthiness, and its gigantic sense of humor. Eden is sarcastic—Pearl accuses her of having a “relationship disorder”—Pearl is ironic, and Harry is offensive and defensive in turn.
This marvelous threesome, tightly controlled by director Mark L. Taylor, is augmented by the delightful Salli Saffioti as a young neighbor coping with having abandoned her roots as a Chasidic Jew. (She calls the sisters, who are Christian, “high goyim.”)
The ensemble also benefits from the original songs of Academy Award winner (for Norma Rae) and double Grammy winner (for Saturday Night Fever) David Shire and the classy and tacky living room sets designed for Eden and Harry, respectively, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz.
A Heap of Livin’, produced by The Inkwell Theater, is currently having its world premiere as a guest production at The Odyssey Theatre in West L.A. It will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through March 17th. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. For tickets call 310-477-2055 or visit www.inkwelltheater.com.
Photo: Jayne Brook, Didi Conn, Lawrence Pressman
Photo by Lew Abramson