nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 11, 2007
Heavy chains of memory drag behind January 26th through 28th, 1986, wherever expired days roam. The 26th was a Sunday, and the motley band of characters known as the '85-'86 Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl, as predicted in their unexplainably popular rap song, "The Super Bowl Shuffle." Two days later, at 11:39 AM, Space Shuttle Challenger and the crew of seven that it carried skyward for 73 seconds disintegrated on national television in an explosion of white smoke and debris. We have indelible memories of these events—where we were, who was with us. But for the Philadelphian family in Timothy Mansfield's January 1986, they are merely bookends for a terrifying period of domestic strife. Nick's attempts as narrator to structure his childhood recollections of the trauma behind his family's breakup are relentlessly thwarted by his parents, who confront him on the outskirts of memory, contradicting details that smooth too many edges off the past's jagged mess.
All three actors sear through their performances, but Adam Nowak's presence as Dad is summer thunder. All flannel and temper, the working class patriarch has a weakness for sports gambling and the Cinderella dream of the New England Patriots making the point spread in Sunday's Super Bowl. By the time the Bears have shuffled their way to a 41-point lead, the bookies are calling Dad, and Nowak conveys a harrowing, drunk helplessness. His calm demeanor as he reflects back on the three day saga is profound in its utter lack of apology or excuse. He does not distance himself from his cagey behavior, but abides his flaws as chronic and unshakable. The past is what it is, rarely gentle. Dad's attempts to convey this to Nick are rooted and compelling in Nowak's hands.
Ian McWethy gives Nick hurt, sympathetic innocence, and Jona Tuck weaves layers of nuance and vulnerability into Mom's forced resolve to battle crises with routine and denial, until it finally becomes impossible. Establishing a coherent world of memory where characters can argue with the narrator is not easy, and director Michael Kimmel has done an admirable job with it. Some of the stage fighting could use tightening, particularly the hits during Dad's offstage beating of Mom after the Super Bowl; they are barely audible.
January 1986 resonates because Timothy Mansfield has written it to be a memory play without sentimentality, tearing Nick in two directions. He yearns for an epiphany borne of a crystal-clear mental picture of his childhood, but his memories are tattered with unresolved issues of disappointment. He cannot help his unconscious attempts to patch them with details that are easier to bear, rather than coming to terms with the darker side of his identity. Twice Nick flees quite far from the account of those three days, interviewing Mom at one point as though she is a movie star "acting" in his memories, and delivering a schticky stand-up routine with canned laughter regarding the headlines of the time. These are jarring shifts in the play, but brilliantly apt to the amorphous manner our imaginations use to handle emotional difficulty. The play is a strong brew of psychology and emotional need.