Monday, February 12, 2024

REVIEW: Riveting Personal Drama Addresses Weighty Themes in Luna Stage World Premiere

By Ruth Ross

Gabriel Jason Dean’s drama, Rift, or white lies, commissioned by Luna Stage and currently receiving its world premiere at the black box theatre in West Orange, satisfyingly fulfills the promise of both parts of its title.

The main title and central conflict, Rift, revolves around two half-brothers who, despite sharing a parent and similar trauma, were raised differently, putting one on the path to prison and the other to a career as a writer and college professor. Over a period of about 25 years, through in-person and online prison visits and an actual physical visit at their father’s funeral, the two attempt to reconnect, reconcile and re-establish their familial bond.

The play’s subtitle, “white lies,” refers to the lies the brothers tell each other and themselves—some banal omissions, others criminal—and the association of the Inside Brother with the prison “chapter” of the white supremacist Neo-Nazi Aryan Nation. That this association becomes one of the roadblocks to mending the brothers’ rift makes Rift, or white lies a nuanced look at the current situation hounding American society and psyche, told through the personal lens of familial dysfunction.

A two-hander as intense as Rift demands actors with the chops to command the stage without competing, memorize a huge amount of dialogue (this is, after all, a play with little to no physical action) and exhibit superior talent. Director Ari Laura Kreith’s decision to cast Blake Stadnick and Matt Monaco as Outside and Inside Brother, respectively, pays off handsomely.

The air between the two is thick with conflict, with long-withheld details leaking out, bit by bit, as they confront each other in a series of four visits. As Inside Brother, Monaco becomes more menacing as time passes, his body covered with Neo-Nazi and prison tattoos a signal that no one, even his little brother, should mess with him. Stadnick’s Outside Brother evolves from confused, hesitant college student to successful writer, a metamorphosis evident in his clothing (hoodie and jeans to shirt and tie) and his body language. However, both brothers are wounded souls; while Outside Brother appears to have “made it,” he shares a cycle of familial abuse with Inside Brother—the latter to an even more horrifying degree. Stadnick and Monaco inhabit their roles so convincingly that the latter inspires fear and the former, loathing, on the part of the audience.

Dean’s script has much to say about racism, with Outside Brother declaring that “race is a construct” and calling non-whites a “global majority.” Inside Brother scoffs at such wokeness; he’s become an enforcer in the KKK and a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, although he’s tried to disassociate himself (go “inactive”) in later years. The study of the two brothers raised so differently shines a light on the importance of parenting, of listening to and believing in children, of making them feel valued. The paths chosen by the two brothers are direct reflections of the nurture over nature destiny debate. Other topics addressed by the playwright include the inhuman terror experienced by the imprisoned; the use of money to “buy” physical protection and to encourage artistic pursuits; and whether and author has the right to use another person's life, however “fictionalized,” as the basis for a literary work. The latter is germane to the situation, given that Dean has used his own life as fodder for this endeavor.

Despite Rift’s being a play of words, Stadnick and Monaco give performances involving a great deal of physical action. Inside Brother (Monaco) has a great physique, evidence of his working out while in prison. He dances agilely around the stage and performs a series of very energetic push-ups. With his brother’s coaching, Outside Brother (Stadnick) almost matches him, move for move, in the scene featuring their online visit. That the two could engage in such active exercise while convincingly reciting their lines is a testament to their great physical shape and acting talent.

Performed on a bare set (only a table and two chairs and, later, a bench) designed by You-Shin Chen and lit by Cameron Felepas, Rift communicates an atmosphere of hopelessness and disconnection shared by prisoners and their families. Deborah Caney’s costume design is most notable in Outside Brother’s attire; as he travels up the social and career ladder, his suits become a bit more bespoke, and a pocket handkerchief telegraphs his success and sophistication. Even Stadnick’s hair-do evolves as he ages! And the orange jumpsuit worn by Monaco is a glaring reminder of his incarceration.

Despite our political differences, we used to talk about Americans as belonging to a “family,” but the last eight years have rent the bonds that once bound us together, however tenuous they might have been. Families have been torn apart by opposing political sympathies, attitudes toward those different from us, a fear of losing primacy in a changing world. Inside Brother and Outside Brother personify that conflict, one a prisoner (of his own hatreds?) and the other what is today considered an “elite.” Can the two reconcile and find their way as a family once more?

Dean’s drama is, I think, a parable for our time, spinning out as a confrontation between two brothers. The last moments before the lights come down may not resolve their problem, but I find Rift, or white lies to be hopeful. Perhaps, that’s all we can ask for these days.

Rift, or white lies will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through March 3. For information and tickets, visit online.

Photos by Valerie Terranova.