The Ties That Strangle

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Family is a funny thing-especially in Joel Drake Johnson'sThe Fall to Earthat 59E59 Theaters. Estranged mother and daughter Fay (Deborah Hedwall) and Rachel (Jolie Curtsinger) fractiously reunite to complete a gruesome task: identify and bring home the body of Kenny, their son and brother.

Things immediately get off to a rocky start when Fay and Rachel discover that they have only one large bed in their motel room, and not the two Rachel was so sure she ordered. "We can share!" Fay says enthusiastically-and firmly. As she does for so much of the antsy, twitchy first scene, Rachel reluctantly agrees.

Johnson and director Joe Brancato amp up the awkwardness in the second scene, when Fay and Rachel go to the police station. There, officer Terry (Amelia Campbell) is appalled at how Rachel sees her mother, and Fay grows progressively unhinged-a feat, considering she had an entire conversation with herself earlier in the play.

The tone of encroaching dread with which Brancato infused the play's first two-thirds can't be sustained, however, and disappears completely in the final confrontation among the three women back in the motel room. And along with the lingering mysteries that Johnson over-explains, our sense of empathy is lost.

Hedwall is both the play's secret weapon and its built-in destruct button. Her carefully controlled demeanor beings cracking in the first scene, but Hedwall gives up all attempts at subtlety in the last 10 minutes; she turns the dial up to 10 and leaves it there. She screeches, she pinches and she gets physically aggressive-all of which makes Rachel's ambivalence about sharing a bed with Fay suddenly seem like mere self-preservation. Neither Curtsinger nor Campbell are at Hedwall's level, but then, their roles aren't as layered. Injured daughter and sympathetic cop just don't offer up as many opportunities as grieving mother.

Until Johnson pushes his story into an extra-special Oprah episode in its closing moments, he's given audiences a prickly, discomfiting look at the ways family can let you down-and the times when it might be best to cut your losses. Too bad Johnson's climax lets his characters down, too.

The Fall to Earth

Through Feb. 5, 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. (betw. Park and Madison Aves.),; $35.

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