A family gets lost in the woods in "Another Way Home."
Home is a moving target in Anna Ziegler's astute new play, which unfolds at an upper-class summer camp in rural Maine. Lillian and Phillip Nadelman have sent their troubled son Joey off to camp for years in the vain hope that he might someday enjoy it.
Their mistake comes home to roost during a chaotic visiting weekend in this sly 80-minute piece. The playwright captures this family, its beauty and its torment so delicately that the well-worn themes of midlife crisis and adolescent angst feel hauntingly true.
Smartly directed by Meredith McDonough in its world premiere at the Magic Theatre, "Another Way Home" examines the fault lines that lie just beneath the surface of the seemingly perfect family from New York's Upper West Side. It's an insightful memory play that wins us over with its freshness and wit, only to reveal unexpected depths. The playwright etches this family with tenderness but also with bracing honesty so that it's hard not to see yourself in all of the characters on stage at one moment or another.
Ziegler deftly evokes the pampered atmosphere of the "Six Degrees of Separation" set. Lillian (the riveting Kim Martin-Cotten) was once a photographer, Phillip (Mark Pinter) a successful businessman. They go to the ballet and take classes about Grecian urns at the museum. They were madly in love once but have now settled into a strained intimacy punctuated by mundane marital squabbles. They dutifully make sure to stop arguing before they arrive at their teenage son's summer camp.
At first, they con themselves into believing that Joey (Daniel Petzold) has found a way to fit in at Camp Kickapoo because he has a nickname, J-dog. But it soon becomes clear that he doesn't fit in anywhere there are people. He often forgets the little things, like smiling and showering. He's in so much pain so much of the time that he assumes everyone else is miserable as well.
Over the years, doctors have diagnosed Joey with various conditions, from ADHD to autism, but Lillian and Phillip, like all parents, can't shake the fear that they are to blame. If only they were more loving, less permissive, more content with each other, then maybe their son would respond to the world with something others than insults and rage.
The mystery of Joey's depression, which stands in stark counterpoint to his little sister Nora's (Riley Krull) radiance, is never entirely resolved, and that's one of the play's strengths.
Petzold evokes the fury of Joey's temperament, the way he seems to drown in his anger, as well as his childishness. It's clear that one of the reasons he hates his parents is that he still needs them so desperately.
Like his parents, we are left slightly assaulted by the vehemence of his unhappiness. Like his parents, we worry for his safety. Ziegler summons a real sense of danger about Joey, but she also punctures the grimness with tart comebacks and blasts of silliness.
Nora in particular personifies the concept of charming teenage girl. Singing her heart out to Taylor Swift songs (perhaps one too many) or earnestly studying for the SAT, Nora knows she is the glue that keeps her family together, the balm that heals her parents' aches.
Krull captures Nora's precociousness without making her seem like a brainy Smurf. She also nicely evokes the heartbreak of growing up with a sibling whose nature is fundamentally unknowable. Nora emails her brother all summer, but she knows that if he responds, it will likely be with an epithet.
That constant fear of a meltdown is one of the causes of the cracks and fissures in Lillian and Phillip's marriage. Martin-Cotten gives a fierce performance as a mother fighting for her child, even as she realizes she may have lost the battle for her marriage. Pinter seems a bit stiff in the role of Phillip at first, but the final scenes in the play bring out incisive layers of fear and regret.
McDonough, formerly of TheatreWorks, finds the truth in every scene, the possibilities for catharsis hiding in everyday life.
If the play has a flaw, it's that the subplot regarding Joey's friendship with Mike T (a sensitive turn by Jeremy Kahn) never pans out. Ziegler tries too hard to give Joey a moment of epiphany.
Indeed, it's the overwhelming vulnerability of these characters that makes them so endearing. Ziegler writes for baby boomers as well as she does for teens, which makes all of the members of the Nadelman family win a place in our hearts as they search for "Another Way Home."
'another way home'
by Anna Ziegler
Through: Dec. 2
Where: Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $22-$62, 415-441-8822, www.magictheatre.org