— Production photo credit: Cate Cameron
RAMIFICATIONS OF A PARTICULAR CRASH
Irony dominates popular culture, and black comedy has become the performance genre of choice for this generation, the darker the better. There’s no scene too violent in a Tarantino movie that won’t get a laugh, no moment too socially painful or squirm-inducing in a play by David Mamet or Neil LaBute that doesn’t warrant a nervous chuckle.
Movies and plays that embrace this style might be charting our growing insensitivity to violence and other people’s anguish, or they might simply be exploiting it. Either way, it’s worth thinking about what’s going on when one of the worst things you can imagine gets turned into a joke.
Kris Elgstrand’s new play, Ramifications of a Particular Crash, imagines a grieving family three years after the death of 15-year-old daughter Jennifer. She was hit by a car driven by young Hollywood starlet Aimee (Lara Gilchrist), who has come to the family’s home wanting to attain catharsis or forgiveness. Aimee claims to be sick, lost, unable to live with herself since the accident, despite her wealth, fame and thriving career. (She’s getting $15 million for her most recent stupid movie.)
The mother, Joyce (Lori Triolo), is a basket case. Emotionally paralyzed since Jennifer’s death, she’s inconsolable and drugged to the gills. Husband Paul (Brad Dryborough) is trying hard to hold things together while dealing with his irrational wife and surviving daughter: smart, foul-mouthed Jodi (Maxine Chadburn), now 15 herself. Jodi seems to have lived in the shadow of her parents’ grief and sister’s death, and has become even more totally self-centred than your average obnoxious adolescent.
We soon realize that all four characters, while feeling real desperation, are wrapped up in their own egos. Aimee’s remorse is about an inch deep, Paul is an insensitive husband and father, Jodi just wants to escape from this house of pain, and Joyce has become a one-dimensional wallower in her grief. It’s hard to like any of them, but Elgstrand cleverly reveals the psychology of self-interest at work. Maybe he lays on the irony a little too thick when we learn that even Jennifer’s death may have involved an ego trip.
Elgstrand and director Martin Kinch start the play on a high note and rarely let up the pace or intensity. At 80 minutes with no intermission, Ramifications just flies by. That opening scene also sets the mixed tone as Aimee storms in trying to explain herself and pick up boxes of Kraft Dinner that Joyce has dropped, while freaked-out Joyce threatens, screams, and kicks at her in what feels like comic chaos.
The audience quickly gets the message that they’re supposed to find it all funny. So when Joyce, stunned and broken, enters later in an inside-out bathrobe and gropes to find a pocket, my fellow theatregoers screamed with laughter. I thought it was one of the play’s most poignant moments. But once the dogs of comedy are let loose it’s hard to get them back into the kennel.
Joyce is the most problematic character in this regard, and Triolo, a terrific actress, has a hard time finding the right notes. In the early scenes she seems like a cartoon, and later, in response to a key plot development I can’t reveal, Joyce appears almost lobotomized. Only occasionally do we feel the weight of her terrible sorrow.
Dryborough also struggles a little with Paul, the least complex character, but he does a good job with the play’s best speech, Paul’s explanation of how he reconciled himself to Aimee’s killing of his daughter. Gilchrist effectively makes poor-little-rich-girl Aimee the sad joke we’ve come to know through Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes and company. Chadburn’s Jodi is the most sympathetic, compelling, horrifying character and the play’s standout performance.
A wall-hanging dominates Kinch’s simple stage design. It comes to look more and more like a spider web as the characters become progressively entangled in their horribly not-so-funny lives.