What happens to a 13-year-old boy when his mother leaves the family for another life? “She left and poof, there went our family,” says our narrator, called Son (Peter Friedman), the abandoned adolescent now a middle-aged man. In a theatrical musing on mortality and the limits of forgiveness, Max Posner’s play The Treasurer explores what happened next.
Son, the youngest of three siblings (Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu play Son’s older brothers and all other characters), is now married, a father and living a prosperous Denver life when the calls begin. Someone must deal with Mom: her dead second husband left her with limited resources and a mountain of debt. Perhaps Son is best with money. But perhaps he was also harmed the most, emotionally, by the departure of his mother.
This is the fragmented story of a fragmented family coping with the familiar concern of an aging parent. What makes this story less familiar is the distant adult child, one still scarred by the damage, attempting to engage in such legwork. Shouldering the financial maintenance of a parent sinking into dementia is not uncommon, but working through that lingering damage is — offering lovely dramatic possibilities. As does a set by Laura Jellinek that utilizes plaster board, wall tape, unfinished walls, spare furnishings and one terrific reveal later on.
As directed by David Cromer, most of the action takes place around the edges, across dividers, or else out of sight. It’s all to underscore that a fragmented family is difficult, if not impossible, to reassemble. The actors are clearly well amplified and can be heard wherever they are on stage, even if their backs are to us. Yet from my seat at hard house right, third row, there were extended sequences in which one character or another was largely unseen. For her first few minutes on stage, Ida — the mother who discovers her dead husband in an armchair — was fully out of sight. Such toying with sight-lines aims at upending our senses, forcing us to attend to language, adding to the fractured vision.
Ida is her name, but we never learn what makes her tick — other than the compulsion to spend more than she has, thus the need for Son to play her treasurer. Hers is a life in decline, and Deanna Dunagan gives a layered, marvelously prickly performance as the dementia sets in. And when it does, Ida’s persona softens into something plaintive: “tell me you love me,” she requests; “tell me ‘I love you'”. The reasons she abandoned her family is never unpacked and it isn’t the point of this story.
Two of the play’s most potent sequences involve vastly different interactions. The first is between Son and a computer voice. Underneath the exquisite lighting of Bradley King and the superb sound design of Mikhail Fiksel, Peter Friedman’s Son responds to conventional, then increasingly more ridiculous and invasive password-protection prompts needed to access his mother’s accounts.
The second sequence is a powerhouse. It features Jellinek’s set reveal, with walls spinning open and the illumination of a suburban, vaguely Asian restaurant and a stilted meal for Son and Ida. Earnestly, she implores Son to interact; he slurps his soup and barely responds. “Tell me ‘I love you’,” she can ask, beg, implore. But can he forgive?
In his initial monologue, Son tells us that his own son wants to write the story of his father and his father’s mother. Are we watching that play? There is such generalized, alienated distance from the emotional core of anyone’s feelings — save Ida’s need for her son to say that he loves her — that it’s fair to ask the question. Yet we are watching that play. Yes, we are.