New play ‘Tranquil’ offers portrait of a family in turmoil

CHRISTOPHER DRUKKER

Brittany Anikka Liu and Frank Licato co-star in “Tranquil,” which is at Luna Stage in West Orange through May 13.

Things are anything but tranquil in the play “Tranquil,” which was written by Andrew Rosendorf and is having its world premiere at Luna Stage in West Orange through May 13.

Ellen (played by Brittany Anikka Liu), 17, has been paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident that killed her mother. Her older brother Aaron (Tony Knotts), who was so freaked out by the incident that he ran away and didn’t come back, has returned, unexpectedly, to attend a grandparent’s funeral. Their father Rick (Frank Licato) worries constantly about Ellen, and fumes about Aaron.

Ellen works at a Wal-Mart, with the play’s fourth character, Paul (Brendan McGrady), a co-worker, helping out with her transportation back and forth.

Ellen’s a fighter — she’s planning to participate in a 5K wheelchair race — though her condition seems to be permanent. But can the rift between Aaron and Rick ever be mended? That seems to be the central question here.

There is also a relationship between Ellen and Paul, though neither seems to have seriously romantic feelings toward the other. Ellen is just eager to explore her sexuality, and Paul is, conveniently, there.

(“Please note, this play contains mature situations and frank sexuality,” reads a message on the theater’s web site. And, indeed, sex acts are discreetly staged, with no nudity, in three scenes.)

The best thing about the play is the richness of the Ellen character. As written by Rosendorf and acted by Liu (under Cheryl Katz’s direction), she’s warm and bright and funny, not in denial about the tragedy in her life but not about to become a self-pitying whiner either. Rick is quite intriguing, too — a gruff, no-nonsense guy with a tender side.

Aaron is less interesting, rarely seeming like anything more than a simmering stew of unresolved angst. And Paul, as mentioned, is just kind of there.

There’s not much of a plot in “Tranquil,” just a portrait of a family in upheaval. The theme is echoed by the intentionally claustrophobic stage design (by Christopher and Justin Swader). The suburban house where Ellen and Rick live, and where Aaron is temporarily staying, is condensed so that everything is practically right next to everything else. There really is no escape.

This makes the play seem a little unconventional, as does the focus on Ellen’s sexuality. Not that Rosendorf is being lurid — Ellen’s sexual experimentation becomes a metaphor for her desire to transcend her disability, and her family troubles, and get to a place in her life where she can be, even if just for a moment, tranquil.

“Tranquil” is at Luna Stage in West Orange through May 13; visit lunastage.org.

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