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Review: Intense Family Drama ‘The Animal Kingdom’ Opens in Braddock

By SHARON EBERSON

If you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be sitting beside someone, near enough to touch, and yet be miles apart, meet Sam and his family.

They have gathered for six therapy sessions at the facility where Sam is a patient, following “the thing,” as his sister Sophia puts it. Sam’s covered wrists tell only a small part of the intense, sometimes excruciating, often funny new play, The Animal Kingdom

Pitch-perfect performances by a cast of five highlight playwright Ruby Thomas’ intimate portrait of a family in crisis, as it has its third-ever production at barebones’ Braddock black box theater.

Award-winning actress Daina Michelle Griffith is equal parts exasperating and heartbreaking as Rita, Sam’s unrelenting mother, who can’t seem to control her need to speak, as if silence is her enemy. On the other hand, Darren Eliker, as Rita’s ex-husband and Sam’s father, Tim, is a study in repressed emotion, barely able to get a single word out, grunting and clearing his throat until you can’t imagine how he can hold it all in any longer.

The cast of barebones’ production of The Animal Kingdom, from left,
Alexandra Casey, Juan Rivera Lebron, Darren Eliker, Daina Griffith
and Greyson Taylor. (Image courtesy of barebones productions)

Sam – a remarkable introduction to Carnegie Mellon University’s Greyson Taylor – is a college zoology student who often sees the world through the lens of animal behavior. He describes his father as hippopotamus-like, with the top of his head and eyes barely above water, and the rest of him hidden below.

Last and seemingly least in this family unit is reliable Sophia – another stunning newcomer, Point Park University’s Alexandra Casey. Overlooked in the wake of her “golden boy” brother and his struggles, her character brings to mind “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” in Next to Normal, and not just because Griffith had one of her most memorable roles in that musical. 

At one point, Griffith’s Rita blurts out that she feels like an empty-nester, to which her daughter has to remind her mother that she is still living at home.

The calm in their storm is Juan Rivera Lebron as psychotherapist Daniel, whose even-tempered questioning and framing of facts makes Sam wonder if Daniel is too good to be true.

Animal comparisons made by Sam at times are often biting, such as when he uses aggressive female bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) to make a point. However, he himself identifies with the swift, a fast-flying, shrill, plain-looking bird, having tried to save an injured one as a child.

Taylor’s Sam is alternately silent and coiled, talkative and bitingly sarcastic, or springing out of his chair, to stalk about the stage in a rage of frustration. We learn that he has been self-harming going back to childhood, acts that Rita believed came later, caused by his parents’ messy divorce. Most certainly, it had nothing to do with his being queer – Rita has to keep being reminded to say “queer,” and not “gay,” as she professes her support.

At first, Sam seems to be oblivious to the struggles of others, beyond how they react to him. It is Sophia who finally calls him out, as each family member digs deep to help him, and in doing so, reveal sources of their own traumas. 

Healing isn’t inevitable in The Animal Kingdom, but there is some satisfaction as layers of history peel away, closing some of the distance in that claustrophobic space, under the glare of institutional lighting. 

Director Patrick Jordan has reconfigured his already intimate black box theater into a three-quarter thrust space, with the largest bank of seats facing a darkly mirrored backdrop – we are told it is a two-way mirror, with no one on the other side. 

Sitting in the first row on opening night, inches from the stage, I was self-conscious only when Rita screamed at Tim for nervously wagging his foot. 

The play’s six sessions – 80 minutes, with no intermission – go by swiftly. In the end, I was reminded of where we began, when Daniel asked the family members to make “an opening statement.” While Tim said he is seeking “a resolution” to his son’s woes, the therapist said he was feeling “hopeful.”

Sam and his family may never bridge the gap in communication and understanding that led them to this moment, but gaining ground is a hopeful first step.

TICKETS AND DETAILS

Barebones productions presents The Animal Kingdom through June 30, 2024, at barebones black box theater, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock. Tickets: visit 

Barebones Gets ‘The Animal Kingdom’ Ready for Its Braddock Closeup