“It’s a month since I’ve seen live theater,” I joke to my best friend from home, texting her as I approach Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse. “I wonder what it’ll feel like?”
From the mezzanine of the theater, the orchestra looks almost lonely. Seven minutes to showtime, and a modest crowd buzzes around the room, the ends of the rows neglected in favor of center seats.
The set is absolutely mesmerizing — a Colorado condo, snow on the porch, and a functioning gas fireplace. I check my texts during the routine safety and fire speech. In the lapse, my best friend has responded: “It’ll feel like home.”
The play begins; the first few jokes are exchanged. Finally encased in darkness, fully transported to Aspen, I smile: it does.
It’s almost ironic that the evening begins with this notion of home. Big Sky, by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, is ultimately a piece about home — specifically, what and who makes the home, and how to keep the home together. Down to his last chance, Jack brings his family to Aspen for his final interview with the Ritz-Carlton condominium company. Throughout the first act, various members of the family reveal secrets to select others. Jack’s wife Jen confesses to her gay best friend, Jonathan, that she’s having an affair and plans to end her marriage after Jack gets the job. Jonathan, meanwhile, is praying Jack gets said job so he can invest the last check Jonathan needs to get his pillow business up and running. He worries that Jen’s separation from Jack might jeopardize his plan. Jen and Jack’s 17-year-old daughter, Tessa, tells Jonathan that she’s in love with her building’s 25-year-old porter, Catoni, the eponymous “Big Sky” of the play.
These plot lines tangle in the two-hour dramedy that unfolds. The first act showcases Gersten-Vassilaros’ brilliant writing, which allows the audience to peer into and empathize with a very specific cross-section of these characters’ lives. The naturalistic prose lends a mixture of humor and candor to the temporary and long-term dreams spilling out in the living room, affording a glimpse into just how simultaneously vast and intimate America is. Here is a family, here is their life, let’s make you care about them, because ultimately they represent a part of you.
And in this attempt to re-dramatize the question of the American Dream, Gersten-Vassilaros’ message ultimately reinforces the countless predecessor plays that address the same theme: there is no such thing as the perfect American Dream, as the idealized American Family.
“You’re both so fucked up!” Tessa screams at her parents during a pivotal fight in Act II. Yes they are, as is Jonathan, as is Tessa herself. And that’s the point. Being “fucked up” ultimately doesn’t break a family, Gersten-Vassilaros argues, nor is it abnormal in this day and age. The final scene, right after Jack delivers the bombshell — the family is broke — depicts the four of them freezing in an Aspen blizzard-blackout, wordlessly building a fire. “Jonathan, we need your lighter,” Tessa urges in the concluding lines of the play, as the characters stand shivering with their backs to the audience before the final blackout. What I gleaned from this poignant sliver of a resolution is that this family, like so many other families with their own worries and aspirations, intends to work through things, no matter how broken it is.
Ultimately, I found myself wishing there were a more equitable division of dramatic tension across the acts. While Act I is more polished than Act II, the play’s structure seems to set up each individual plot point in Act I and leave most of the climactic moments for Act II. And in the course of the explosive rage that is the second act, Gersten-Vassilaros loses a bit of her dexterity, and the messages about how to be a family get warbled.
Additionally, as a friend of mine noted after we had both seen the show separately, the main themes discussed in the play — specifically those concerning Jack’s financial difficulties and Jonathan’s desire to play the entrepreneur — felt almost too trite against the backdrop of a disquieting American summer. And yes, perhaps my notion that Gertsen-Vassilaros has rewritten another American Dream play comes off as a bit too easy of a parallel; can I really compare Willy Loman’s madness in Death of a Salesman to Jack’s thirty minutes of shouting, delivered eloquently from the comfort of his Colorado condo? Equally disturbing was Tessa’s relationship with Catoni, a Native American idolized for his token, spiritual connection with Mother Nature. Offstage and therefore unable to weigh in on the relationship, Catoni is unwittingly silenced by Gersten-Vassilaros’s script in an American trope unfortunately just as common as the American Dream.
However, there were some overall theatrical triumphs, especially during Act II, so that the play still felt impactful. Tessa’s teenage-angst facade touchingly dissolves into an authentic seventeen-year-old so afraid of living in the real world — and in her parent’s present — that her boyfriend is not only her first love but also an escape. Jen’s confession to Jack about her affair is delivered in absolute silence and near-darkness, a rare quietness so needed, it earns its desired payoff. The final family-against-the-world moment — “Jonathan, we need your lighter” — resonates, perhaps proving the worth of Gersten-Vassilaros’s writing and resolution. Or perhaps I was purely crying from a sentimental standpoint: clapping during the curtain call, I rediscovered the importance and impact of home.