Keeping it (Dramatically) in the Family

by Diep Tran

in American Theatre magazine

The 1949 Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Is there nothing in life more rewarding and simultaneously frustrating than your family? If you’ve ever had your mother call at inconvenient moments and when she asks, “How is everything going?” (in which you grit your teeth and cheerfully (usually falsely) reply, “Fine!”) then you know what I’m talking about.

This week, I saw a newly commissioned play at the Roundabout Theatre Company, called Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam. Currently running, it is about two Lebanese brothers whose father recently died of a heart attack and how they now must care for their aging uncle while dealing with their own dramas stemming from relationships and sickness. And in a move that seems to be usual for plays of this topic, the primary source of frustration is within the home.

It had me thinking about family plays or rather, just how many there are this season on Broadway and are part of the historical canon.

Time and time again, domesticity has proven to be an area ripe for exploration (or a surefire way to create a compelling hour to two hours of theater). Familial relationships can have bigger socio-political repercussions (Shakespeare’s King Lear or Othello) or it can just drive a person crazy (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman).

Sometimes, it’s parents and children reacting to each other, such as in Man and Boy by Terence Rattigan currently on Broadway. Other times, it’s siblings reacting to each other, such as in We Live Here, by Zoe Kazan, currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club, or the aforementioned Sons of the Prophet. And other times, it is husband and wife driving the action (David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole or Follies).

Perhaps it’s the commonality within the theme of family. After all, not everyone finds themselves battling AIDS (Angels in America) or unwittingly becoming cannibals (Sweeney Todd). But everyone has a mother who drives them crazy (Gypsy). Ben Brantley pointed out today how this season on Broadway seems to be filled with “monsters Mom and Dads.” While most of our parents may not be too monstrous, they can be frustrating.

For me, it’s ironic that something we look on as so mundane (after all, how many of us use the holidays as a time to go to our parents’ house and unwind), seems to have become the basis for a number of well-known, dramatically-rich plays. And the amounts of new works on the Broadway stage that handle the surprisingly volatile topic continue to crop up.

As such, contrary to what we may experience in our own lives, the juiciest material doesn’t come from strangers at a bar but rather, from inside the walls of the house.

Diep Tran is an editorial assistant at American Theatre magazine. She comes from the sunny land of California. When she is not writing about theatre and seeing theatre, she watches television shows about glee clubs and zombies. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.