The Children of Vonderly
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 1, 2007
Lloyd Suh's new play The Children of Vonderly begins with a gorgeous, warm scene: Jerry and Sasha, two of the eponymous adopted children of a recently deceased father, are sitting together in the kitchen. Jerry, who is paraplegic and in a wheelchair (and African American), is feeding Sasha, who is mentally retarded (and Asian American). All the while, she's chattering about this and that, and he's reassuringly explaining what's going on with the family: that now that their father is dead, they need to be extra mindful of their mother, and that there will be changes in the household. What's palpable is the love these two share (tribute to the writing and to the fine acting of William Jackson Harper and Jackie Chung); it appears that Old Mr. Vonderly's apparent dream of building an American family out of the most diverse and disparate elements has worked on the most fundamental level.
Suh's play traces Jerry's journey over the next several weeks, as he copes with the many changes. And they're legion: his mother has been thrown over the edge by her new loneliness and her new responsibilities; two of Jerry's siblings, Noah and Georgia, are planning to run away together (they've fallen in love); Jerry's oldest brother, Benjamin, fights mercilessly with the mother; and eventually, as Jerry becomes increasingly unable to manage things (and remains more or less permanently drunk), a caretaker/psychologist named Chuck Halberstreith is invited into the Vonderly home to try to sort things out.
It all turns out to be a bit more than a single play can effectively harbor: Jerry's personal story, grounded in his deep affection for the members of his household, is really sufficient fuel for the plot of The Children of Vonderly, but Suh loads the piece down with other, less well-explored subplots, such as the mother's breakdown and the Noah/Georgia romance. Scenes where Harper's Jerry interacts with his siblings are golden, though, as are those where he deals with Chuck, well-acted by Paco Tolson and thankfully portrayed as neither a quack nor a wimp.
Ralph B. Pena's realization of the piece, for Ma-Yi Theater Company, is full of warmth and intelligence. The design elements—Sarah Lambert's spare set, Maiko Matsushima's naturalistic costumes, and Josh Bradford's evocative lighting—serve the play beautifully. The performances are generally excellent as well, led by Harper's exquisite turn and including, in addition to those already mentioned, Shawn Randall as a retarded brother, Abraham; Stephen Jutras as Benjamin; Hoon Lee as Noah; and Maureen Sebastian as Georgia. The main misstep here is Lynn Cohen's portrayal of Mrs. Vonderly, and it might be the script's fault—we just don't have a feel for what this woman was like before her husband died, and as a result, the dynamic of her relationship with the children remains fuzzy.
But The Children of Vonderly is, for the most part, a loving and thoughtful portrait of a young man's coming to terms with his limitations and his heart's true desire, and is a splendid addition to the new theatre season.