The title character of “Theo,” a new play that is making its world premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through March 24, is a meditation enthusiast. The point of the practice, he says, is “to be in the present.”
“Where else would we be, fer Chrissakes?” asks his no-nonsense mother.
Ah, but the past looms large over playwright Martin Moran’s five characters.
Theo (Zachary Booth) left their small Catskill Mountains, N.Y., town years ago, under scandalous circumstances, and is now surprising everyone by returning from the West Coast, for an extended visit.
His mother Margaret (Brenda Wehle), who is suffering from cancer and is expected to die soon, has a big secret that she eventually reveals.
His sister Beth (Andrea Syglowski) has overcome her substance abuse problems and is now a school bus driver and the harried single mother of 16-year-old Maddy (Jesse James Keitel), who was born male but is now living as a woman and eager to start taking expensive female hormones.
Even Margaret’s hospice nurse, Abe (Jon-Michael Reese), has some thorny history with Theo, going back to when they were both in high school, and a tragedy in his childhood that we eventually learn about.
In other words, there is a lot of back story to “Theo,” which takes place mostly in the family’s warm, welcoming, wood-paneled home, with a tree jutting out over part of the audience (the scenic design, which allows us to look in on the living/dining room and Margaret’s bedroom, is by Antje Ellermann).
But Moran doesn’t give his characters much of a story, in the present. Basically, Margaret gets sicker and sicker while everyone else rehashes the past and tries to keep from being driven insane by each other.
Personally, I would have preferred more of a plot. But Moran, the actors and director Carolyn Cantor have, at least, created some memorable characters.
The most memorable among them is the flinty, sharp-tongued Margaret. “I’ll be dead soon enough. Try to be civilized, you two,” she tells her fighting children. Wehle gives her a commanding ferocity even at her most physically frail.
Coming in a close second is Maddy, whose trans lifestyle is accepted unconditionally by the genuinely loving (no matter how troubled) family, but who is still itching to get out of this small, rural town. Keitel makes the character’s frequent swings between bravado and fragility quite believable.
The play’s title may be “Theo,” but Moran is hardly focused on him. The character is kind of a mild-mannered everyman in the center of it all, rather than a charismatic protagonist who drives the action to any significant degree.
Then again, there really isn’t much action in “Theo,” beyond what has happened in the past, and cannot be escaped or forgotten — no matter how hard these characters try.
“Theo” will be at the Marion Huber Theater at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through March 24. Visit tworivertheater.org.