Along with sex and money, it’s one of the primal, primary themes of literature—perhaps the only true theme—and it was best stated by Tolstoy in the famous opening line of Anna Karenina: All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Local author Stephanie Kallos, a 20-year theater veteran whose acting credits include roles at Empty Space, Intiman, and Seattle Children’s Theatre, plumbed that particularly fertile mire of unhappiness in her debut novel, Broken for You, a redemptive tale of multiple lives shattered and then mended by families both immediate and extended. For its antic, upbeat energy and fortuitously intersecting plotlines that trace the tragicomic tangle of human relationships, Kallos’ novel received positive comparisons to such best-selling writers as Anne Tyler and John Irving.
That plot, in director Laura Ferri’s adaptation for Book-It Repertory Theatre, follows a tripartite trajectory. There is Margaret Hughes (Anne Ludlum), an elderly woman living in a Seattle mansion, who is diagnosed with a brain tumor that gives her a 25 percent chance of survival; Wanda Schultz (Jennifer Sue Johnson), the gruff young woman boarding with Margaret, who has traveled from the East Coast in search of the man who broke her heart; and Michael O’Casey (Russell Hodgkinson), a broken man in an overcoat and yellow T-shirt, toting a copy of Yeats, adrift in an existential black hole after abandoning his daughter and, in turn, having been abandoned by his wife. These three eccentrics, surrounded by a host of peripheral characters who variously bump into and influence their lives (alone or collectively) in crucial ways, find themselves being drawn together for a series of reckonings—well, of course, they do.
The kaleidoscopic story, which jumps back and forth in time as well as sideways into various subplots, isn’t always easy to follow, though that’s the least of the play’s problems. Ferri’s staging attempts to re-create the novel’s energy through flashbulb-rapid segues and perpetual scenic shifts. These devices, however, tend to stop up rather than capture any essential spirit, resulting in a play that at times feels diffuse and insubstantial. More troublesome is Book-It’s convention of having the characters self-narrate many of their thoughts and actions, a device common to cartoons (“Must . . . escape . . . this . . . wheel of . . . death!”) which, applied to a staged performance, engenders in the audience a feeling of almost scientific detachment from the action onstage. This, coupled with the rapid pacing, creates a kind of vacuum where the audience’s empathy should be. Broken for You is the type of story— domestic, operatic, deeply felt—that requires a basic earthiness to transmit its homespun truths; get too cute and the family affair rings false.
It’s too bad the production is hampered by such mechanical difficulties, because a lot of the acting is first-rate. Ludlum shines in a role that calls for a tricky balance between bemusement and buried regret. She plays the dying woman with just the right amount of halting, apologetic neediness. Johnson (who also plays Michael’s bowling-alley girlfriend, Gina Lorenzini) is able to find humor in a character that falls annoyingly short of being a total bitch. Also good is Sean G. Griffin as Margaret’s would-be swain Gus, who gets as deeply twisted in the goings-on as he can. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is Edd Key, who scored the play and also single- handedly performs his music on sax, clarinet, and keyboards. His tasteful, minimalistic offerings are perfectly attuned to what’s going on onstage. Too bad it can’t also be the other way around.