The Rep, the Point Park U professional theatre group,continues with its admirable project of producing entirely new plays this season with MIA by Bruce J. Robinson. Inevitably something like this, untried before now, can still need work. This needs a lot, but the dynamic and inventive second act makes it clear that Robinson has something significant to say and seems capable of saying it well.
Now that so many newer plays resemble extended one-acts, coming in at 90 minutes or so, something can be said for such a concentrated focus and a resultant trajectory pushing along serious stories like these, making them potentially more intense. This two- act play could get there with serious tightening, working better in the shorter framework.
MIA has some affinities with Arthur Miller’s plays about fathers and sons. All My Sons likewise deals with the question of honor during wartime. And, as in Death of a Salesman, the father is also a salesman. But, based on this effort, Robinson has a long way to go to equal Miller’s clarity of writing and depth of character.
The premise has potential. Frank Schooler’s oldest son Michael evidently died in the first Iraq War; his body was never found. On what would have been Michael’s 40th birthday, while new wars rage, younger son Randy wants to enlist. Frank and his wife Emmy can’t deal with that.
Underlying this dilemma, the dialogue suggests Frank’s patriotism could be in conflict with his resistance to Randy’s need to do something significant for his country. Robinson has made a bad choice in having Frank reluctant to clearly state what he thinks and feels most deeply. Moreover, too much of the first act meanders into trivial conversation wandering around the core of the exposition before having some emotional intensity when Randy gets drunk.
The second act gets more into focus, including developing a solid secondary theme about commitment and the need to take charge of one’s own life. This concerns Randy’s married sister Maura. Eventually Robinson also brings in good theatrical devices, including Michael’s materialization in Frank’s dreams.
Director John Amplas and his production staff have found many interesting, expressive ways to underscore the story with lights and projections. But, on opening night, sound designer’s Steve Shapiro’s echo effect for a dramatic scene between Michael’s ghost and Frank seriously went awry.
The excellent cast does well with what it has been given, especially Point Park Conservatory alumnus Justin Mark DeWolf’s convincing version of Randy. Daina Michelle Griffith also capably shows Maura’s multiple dimensions. As Frank, Larry John Meyers looks stuck with an ill-defined character, neither thoroughly conveying Frank’s potentially harsh side nor his emotional vulnerability. Visiting actor Tommy LaFitte plays Frank’s long time friend Kenny, something of a level-headed foil to Frank’s variable states of mind. On opening night, I found it difficult most of the time to understand what LaFitte was saying. So did the woman next to me.
Unfortunately neither Amplas nor his cast can do enough to make the play work better. Robinson could. I wish him well.
MIA continues through April 7th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.