Things I Know To Be True – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

The creative process of a play is fascinating. When Australian playwright Andrew Bovell wanted to write a new, intimate play, his intention was to explore several areas, including thoughts and feelings of his father (a man he called the quintessential Australian suburban dad), the future expectations of how things should be for a family once the children have grown and moved out, and the place where he grew up, run away from, then returned to – Adelaide.

In 2013, during early development, Bovell workshopped ideas with Australia’s State Theatre Company, where, through intensive group discussion and improvisation, nuggets of what would later become a fully-fledged play began to emerge. It was Adelaide actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey (who would go on to play teenager Rosie) who talked of her time traveling in Europe in the year after high-school and before college – termed ‘Gap-Year’ in Australia – and how her heart was broken, how she became homesick for Adelaide, and what happened when she was alone, standing on a train platform. She made a list of things she knew to be true. In the same way that English film director Mike Leigh incorporates the best elements of an improvised performance during rehearsal into his screenplay before filming, writer Bovell used Cobham-Hervey’s European story as a launching pad for his new play. The title comes from the performer’s shared adventure.

When the play premiered three years later on its home turf, the story of the Price family was set in Adelaide. Later that same year, when the play opened in London with a new cast, the Australian location remained. But for American audiences, Bovell has adapted his play to better reflect a more familiar setting. The Price family are now Americans and live somewhere in the Midwest.

Arizona Theatre Company’s new presentation of Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is the critically acclaimed production created by Milwaukee Repertory Theater and directed by the company’s Artistic Director, Mark Clements. It’s the final production of ATC’s varied 2018/19 season and continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 2. It’s also the epitome of a valley theatre must-see.

Told from the perspective of the four grown siblings who introduce each new season of the year with a monologue, the play begins with the Price’s youngest daughter, Rosie (Aubyn Heglie). Rosie was on her great European adventure, the one she’d been saving for having spent a year waiting tables and babysitting. “Berlin. A winter coat. And a broken heart,” she begins. Now, with a brief but spectacular love affair gone wrong – Emmanuel from Madrid ran off with Rosie’s 400 euros, her camera, her iPad, and a large piece of her heart – the teenager misses home and her family more than ever. To stop herself from coming apart she makes a list of all the things she knows for certain to be true. Because of her inexperience, it’s a very short list. 1) Things at home are the same as when she left and they always will be, and 2) “I know that I have to go home.”

Set in the Price family back yard where the only constant among all the changes is the large tree and the continual cultivation of dad’s white roses, with each new season comes a new monologue and whole new set of family values to conflict. The older daughter, Pip (Kelly Faulkner) tells us, “This yard is the world. Everything that matters happened here.” Pip talks of how once when she was twelve she saw her mother banging her head against the trunk of the tree while crying. “What makes a woman like that cry?” she asks. A mother. Her mother. Pip never had the courage to ask. It scared her. Now that she’s a woman, married, with children of her own, she doesn’t need to ask. “I know exactly why a woman bashes her head against the trunk of a tree.”

Then there are the two boys. Mark (Kevin Kantor) who is listed as ‘Mia’ in the program’s cast list for heartbreaking reasons later revealed, used to climb the tree and hide. “From up there, I could see the world,” he tells us. At least, he could see his world, as an outsider, observing everything and everyone without their knowledge, “Not really a part of the picture, and not really even knowing why.” Among the things he saw was his mother secretly drinking and smoking. “I suspect that of all of us, she smoked the most cigarettes on account of me.”

And finally, Ben (Zach Fifer). When Spring arrives, Ben’s monologue reflects the chaos of the home, the chores that had to be done and by whom, and his observations of the arguments, the conflicts, and the love between his parents. “She loved it when they danced,” Ben relates. “And we groaned and stuck our fingers down our throats and pretended that we weren’t interested in their dancing, in their love, in the secrets that only they shared.” But Ben will have secrets of his own with a story that will conflict with everything his father values, including where the young financial services officer, whose job it is to move money around all day, got the cash to pay for that expensive looking foreign sports car parked outside in the drive.

Incorporating familiar and easily relatable themes of family love and expectations, Fran (Jordan Baker) and Bob (Bill Geisslinger) are part of the American dream, having had struggles, worked hard, bought a house, raised four children, put three through college with one more still to go, and hoped that their children’s lives would be even better than theirs. But when expectations conflict with the reality of others, it doesn’t quite work. “It wasn’t meant to be like this,” states Bob. “I thought they’d be like us. But better than us.” He thought they’d all want to live close by, or at least, remain in the same city. But it’s not going to be, as many parents regularly discover. “Stop thinking we can handle it because maybe we can’t,” declares Fran.

With a running time of two hours and ten minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission, Bovell’s play doesn’t simply pull you in, it forcibly yanks, keeping a firm grip on your attention as conflict after conflict is confronted, while Bob and Fran’s family hopes are challenged and rejected. It’s a fascinating watch that results with a lengthy running time that ultimately feels considerably shorter once concluded. With energetic direction from Clements that has his players forever on the move while fleshing performances from a superb cast, who by now must know their characters from the inside out, Things I Know To Be True becomes an unexpected, emotional roller coaster. Make no mistake, you’re going to be shattered. It’s difficult to remember a play that resonates in such a way to the point where your mind has an inability to think of anything else hours after having left the theater. But among the drama, there’s also humor. When dad wanders the yard looking lost in his own world, Fran dryly warns, “I’m not taking care of him if he gets dementia.”

The power of the piece is how easy it is to relate. The problems that face the Price family will not necessarily be yours, heaven forbid. The conflicts are not altogether typical. So much occurs within the changes of those seasons with emotions so thoroughly wrenched, it’s hard to believe there would ever be a survivor, but the idea of expecting what family life is going to be and how a parent wants them to play out – the kids marrying good people with weddings in the yard, and having good kids of their own, with sleepovers at the grandparent’s and barbecues on most Sundays – is universal. What doesn’t completely work is the translation from an Australian culture to an American.

Rosie’s year before college traveling Europe is a regular occurrence for Australians. Parents expect and often encourage it as a way for their children to experience a world in the old country before their days at university back in Oz begin. This ‘gap-year’ is not a thing in most American families and would be considered an unusual step of unbelievable tolerance for an eighteen-year-old alone, overseas in Europe by any American parent, let alone Fran and Bob Price.

Bob talks of their family background as working-class while the play presents them as living an American middle-class existence, but what is considered working-class in both Australia and in England is not the same socio-economic structure as here in America. Most Brits and Australians tend to be confused by the American definition of middle-class when they hear it; to them, it represents something else. And, in an American setting, I’m not convinced that dad’s suspicious reaction to Ben’s flashy car would be quite as negative as presented in this play.

Plus, when Fran reveals she has secretly saved almost $200,000, throughout the years since being married, as a plot point it jars. In both the U.K. and Australia, health costs are low to practically zero when compared to the cost of American insurances, co-pays, deductibles, and all those extra individual bills from doctors, nurses, intern doctors, anesthesia departments, and the surgery itself, which all have to be paid. University costs are also considerably less expensive and simpler to the point where going to university and paying off debt is rarely a problematic factor. If the Price family have bought and now own a house in a nice neighborhood, raised four children and put them all through college on income earned from a working-class background, it’s doubtful anyone could have saved a penny, let alone a secret stash from mom’s income that was enough to buy a second mid-western home with cash. A typical American family would still be paying off debt. Remaking foreign culture movies and television shows into American ones is understandable when aiming for a mass market, but American theatergoers are considerably more discerning, understanding, and appreciative, particularly those who would go to see Things I Know To Be True in the first place. Appreciation of Bovell’s work would have been just as easily relatable and perhaps that little more interesting had the setting remained in Adelaide presented with Australian accents.

Still, the transfer, while raising questionable outcomes and motives because of cultural differences, doesn’t alter the appreciation of what is clearly great writing. The one thing I know to be true is that this ATC presentation is the finest and most emotionally affecting live theatre production the valley has seen so far this year. It’s the play you didn’t know you were waiting for.

Things I Know To Be True continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 2

Pictures courtesy of Michael Brosilow

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