“Leaving Home” Examines the Trials and Tribulations That Make a Family

Photo by Ed Krieger.

Actors Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry have been married for 33 years and certainly have seen the best and worst of times in their years together.  Their personal experience adds sparks of realism to “Leaving Home” by David French, now onstage at the Ruskin Group Theatre, directed by Barbara Tarbuck. Immigration challenges, shared across cultures, are brought to light in this compelling story centering around one family coming to terms with their children deciding it is finally time to leave home.

Set in 1958 just as things were slowly starting to change for women, Leaving Home’s Mercer family lives in Toronto after emigrating from Newfoundland via Ireland.  Jacob, the family Patriarch (Chris Mulkey), is very old school using his temper and the bottle to loudly express his views, often opening his mouth and inserting his foot to the detriment of his long-suffering family.  His wife Mary (Karen Landry) runs the home, certainly the quiet power behind the throne who loves dolling herself up just like Donna Reed in the shirtwaist dresses and small cardigan sweaters so popular at the time.

The brisk dialogue examines how family members can flip from one emotion to another in a split second, their words cutting to the bone and setting off hateful arguments.  Certainly I can understand the difficulties faced by an Old World father trying to deal with his modern age children who refuse to follow his edicts, their poor mother caught n the middle.

The play begins on the eve of son Billy’s (James Lastovic) wedding to his pregnant girlfriend Kathy (Sierra Barter), both 17 and hardly ready to take on their own family responsibilities. But this is 1958 and it was just what was done.  The group is gathering for dinner in the Mercers home, with much food served and eaten during the scene as each character shares their thoughts on the upcoming nuptials.

After Kathy announces she has had a miscarriage and lost the baby, her sexy, party girl mother Minnie (the luminous Mary Carrig dressed in a skin tight red cocktail dress), encourages the teenagers to go through with the wedding since the food, flowers, church and invitations have been sent. Certainly she does not want to be embarrassed in front of the whole town if the wedding is called off.  And Billy even underwent conversion to Catholicism, much to his Anglican father’s dismay, to marry Kathy.  But what do the kids want?  Even they don’t really know other than wanting to finish their education. What will they decide to do?

Older brother Ben (Kayde McMullen) has just graduated and is ready to get out of the house to find his own way.  With his younger brother getting married, Ben decides to move in with the newlyweds so they can all save on rent.  With his father the last to know of his decision, poor Ben is thrown into a fist fight and belt whipping by his father, causing Ben to pack up and leave his family home right there and then.  The brutal intensity of the fights had many audience members gasping for air.

A bit of comic relief is added with the character of Howard (Chip Bolcik), a nicely dressed but totally silent gentleman who is Minnie’s date for the night. He sits on the couch and listens but never verbalizes an opinion.  When things get tough, he merely gets up and pours himself another drink.  Each visit to the bottle was accompanied by audience chuckles.

But certainly Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry are the stars of the show, their real-life affection on display with each knowing glance in the other’s direction or tender touch as they dance.  When they explode at each other verbally, you can still see the love behind their anger, letting us know that these two will survive and stay together no matter what. And in 1958, it was just what most people did.

“Leaving Home” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through March 14, 2015 at the Ruskin Group Theatre, located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students, seniors, and guild members) and can be purchased in advance by calling (310) 397-3244 or online at www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Free parking is available at the theater.