The Column Online



by David Rabe

The Basement

Directed by Jeff Swearingen
Set Creation by Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp
Costumes by Bren Rapp

Ozzie – Chris Rodenbaugh
Harriet – Taylor Donnelson
Ricky – Tex Patrello
David -- Josh LeBlanc
Father Donald – Doak Campbell Rapp
Sargent – Marcus Miller
Zung – Holly He

Reviewed Performance: 2/12/2016

Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

From 1952 to 1966, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their sons David and Ricky were the ideal American family on TV, far away from life’s ugly realities, perfect in every way. David Rabe chose to name his characters after this iconic family in his 1972 Tony Award winning play Sticks and Bones about the then current Vietnam War. A Vietnam veteran himself, Mr. Rabe wrote Sticks and Bones while a graduate student in the late ‘60s. It became the second play in his Vietnam trilogy, following The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and before Streamers. The play opened off-Broadway at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in 1971, ran for 121 performances, and transferred to Broadway in March of 1972 where it ran for 246 performances.

As Ben Brantley says when writing about Sticks and Bones’ 2014 revival, “At a time when Vietnam was largely an unmentionable word in mainstream entertainment, Mr. Rabe … dragged the war’s moral ambiguities onstage, kicking, screaming and spitting blood.” Unfortunately, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan could undoubtedly find much to identify with in the play today and Fun House Theatre and Film is making its case for relevance with fine acting by its young cast in a strong production directed by Jeff Swearingen.

Briefly, the plot of this black comedy revolves around David, a blind Vietnam vet who is unable to come to terms with his wartime actions, and his family, Ozzie, Harriet and Ricky, who cannot accept his disability nor understand his experiences. The play explores the conflicted feelings of the American public about its wartime veterans when they return.

Leading the cast is Chris Rodenbaugh as Ozzie, the patriarch of this All-American family. Mr. Rodenbaugh’s nuanced and assured characterization grabs us by the throat and won’t let go. The shock of his son returning, blinded in the war, a different boy entirely from the one who left, is reflected over and over by Mr. Rodenbaugh throughout the evening by his hesitant forays into attempts at emotional connection. His impotent gestures and halting efforts to physically approach his son reveal his frustration and finally his anger at not knowing how to reconnect with this new person who doesn’t fit back into the ideal family picture they have created. Mr. Rodenbaugh’s beats are clear and the arcs well-thought-out in his several lengthy monologues. This is a young actor who knows how to communicate on many levels, both physical and emotional (though finding another gesture for Ozzie to add to the one of hands on hips might add variety.) His final acts of desperation are devastating to experience. A multi-leveled and confident performance.

As Harriet, the ideal wife, Taylor Donnelson is flighty and busy, constantly moving, bringing in food as a substitute for bringing herself emotionally to the situation. Ms. Donnelson manages to communicate a bone-deep anxiety by her tightly held stance, fluttering hand gestures and platitudes delivered with a big smile. When she does allow the façade to crack, it’s only for a second, but it reveals deep fears and even anger. “He bewilders you, doesn’t he?” she says to Ozzie in a rare unguarded moment. “You thought you knew what was right, all those years…teaching him sports and fighting.” As the evening progresses, Ms. Donnelson continues to show us aspects of Harriet by her proximity to the other characters and further reveals her total loss as to how to connect with her son by her constantly roving eyes and changing posture. Again, though at times her performance becomes almost too caricatured, hers is a strong and well-thought-out characterization.

As David, the blinded Vietnam vet, Josh LeBlanc is physically the largest presence on stage most of the time and this works to his advantage as the “elephant in the room” that nobody knows how to relate to. His characterization is solid, from his well-thought out movements as a blind person to his many quiet moments and his few but terrifyingly violent ones. His deep voice makes him the most mature-sounding person on stage which also works to his advantage as the one character who knows what reality truly is. He reflects his hesitations in his voice and the use of his cane and by staying in character, even when exiting is semi-darkness. He creates an enigmatic, sometimes scary and ultimately tragic figure. None of his family wants to hear the story he has to tell and he doesn’t know how to break through to them.

Ricky is Tex Patello, complete with guitar and rather vacant air, his “Hi, Mom. Hi Dad. Hi Dave!” every time he enters and “Bye Mom. Bye Dad. Bye Dave!” every time he exits perfectly delivered. He stands and poses at every entrance while canned applause greets him, big smile and confident stance. The moment in the play when he sings and plays the guitar is so well done, every chord, sour note and bad rhythm delivered with complete assurance of approval, getting the laughs it deserves. His final entrance that doesn’t get applause is greeted by Mr. Patello with absolutely convincing confusion and disbelief, and the way he delivers the final shocking moments chills the blood. What could be a somewhat lesser role becomes vital with Mr. Patello’s performance.

Doak Campbell Rapp is Father Donald and he infuses the character with just the right amount of smarmy unctuousness to make the audience uncomfortable. Though he really only has the lengthy scene at the top of the second act, Mr. Rapp’s experience and stage presence make the character strong and unforgettable. He understands subtext, and the scene with David is a standout.

Marcus Miller is the Sargent who delivers David to his family at the top of the show and he impresses by his military bearing and strong vocal delivery. His speech about his convoy of trucks lined up to deliver broken and wounded soldiers all across America back to their families is horrifying in its intensity. “And when I get back they’ll be layin’ all over the grass, layin’ there in pieces all over the grass, their backs been broken, their brains jellied, their insides turned into garbage. … No, I don’t have time for coffee.”

Holly He is Zung, the ever-present embodiment of the Vietnamese girl David left behind, a constant reminder of his wartime experiences. In what is essentially a silent role, Ms. He is a fully credible presence, impressive in her silence and reactions and touching in her final scene.

Sticks and Bones is an unsettling and fierce work that doesn’t feel dated, resonating as it does with the news of veteran suicides and homelessness we see and hear every day on our screens. The play is not realistic and mixes satire, fantasy and horror to truly disturbing effect. Director Jeff Swearingen has taken his young cast on a fearsome journey and they have followed his lead wholeheartedly, giving their all to this difficult script. The fast paced staging is clean and motivated and Mr. Swearingen knows how to build a scene and when to take moments that pay off for the actors and the audience. Production values for scenery, costumes and lights are simple, but work well, placing the emphasis on the acting and the story. The music is especially effective, setting the sit-com ambience in ironic counterpoint to what’s happening. The narrative is clearly presented and the outcome of the family’s conflict is devastating and nearly unbearable.

Sure the cast may lack the life experience to layer their performances in the more mature roles, but you won’t miss any of the emotion or the nuances of the tale as it presents unpleasant truths that we seek to avoid, but know deep down yearn to be dealt with. Fun House Theatre and Film is to be commended for undertaking a script like Sticks and Bones and delivering a strong, credible production that cries out to be seen by a large audience. Tickets are only eight dollars, so get yours now! You will be challenged by the subject matter and impressed by the skill with which it is presented.

Fun House Theatre and Film
The Black Box Theatre at PCT, 1301 Custer Rd. Plano, TX 75075
Final Performance February 20th, 2016. Tickets are $8.00
7:30pm on Friday and Saturday Evenings
2:30pm on Saturday and Sunday Afternoons
For Tickets and More Info go to or call 214-564-5015