“All happy families are alike,” Leo Tolstoy famously wrote. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Playwright Dan O'Brien has written of one particular unhappy family and one specific unhappy childhood—his own—in The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, directed by Michael Michetti and running through June 4 at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, California.
“I wanted to explore the mystery of my dysfunctional childhood, the mystery of the dissolution of my family, and do it in an autobiographical and very honest and naked way, in a theatricalized way, but tell a true story,” says O’Brien, whose earlier The Body of an American ran at New York’s Primary Stages and received the 2014 Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play.
His new work is “close to docudrama. It’s been adapted somewhat and fictionalized somewhat, mostly to protect identities, to protect the innocent, to protect the guilty],” he says. “[Families] are so universally complicated and compelling, and I hope audiences can find a lot to relate to in my story.”
The spark for his initial exploration, he says, occurred about ten years ago, when O’Brien’s parents and most of his siblings disowned him. “I haven’t seen or spoken to them in ten years. After a few years of recovering from the shock of suddenly no longer having a family, the question was to try to find out why this dissolution occurred.”
Flip through the production photos of the show below:
The play developed out of “a few years of me interviewing other estranged relatives, people I hadn’t seen in sometimes 20 years, and asking them what might have been going on behind the scenes while I was growing up.”
In the play, two actors take on all the roles; one is Dan and the other the interviewed relatives. Rather than a cast of nine, “it seemed more theatrically meaningful for this other actor to be a kind of shapeshifter.”
He found small answers, and an understanding of why things evolved the way they did. “I discovered a much more well-rounded picture of my parents. I started off in probably a more critical and hurt place in relation to them, and I came to develop a more compassionate perspective just by finding out more details that I didn’t know, though I knew them for my first 33 years.”
His family, he says, “had so many secrets as well as lies and/or delusions.” Children “who grow up surrounded by lies can feel unconsciously like they’re not on solid ground as a person. Getting answers with this play has helped me feel a lot more solid about who I am and where I’ve come from.”