First published in The Times, Tuesday August 18 2015
Dysfunctional families are the bread and butter of the American theatre, but the Ballard brothers in Samuel Brett Williams’ one-act play exhibit enough hang-ups to fill a psychology textbook. We meet the three siblings, from Hot Springs, Arkansas, on the day of their father’s funeral, which happens to coincide with derby day at the legendary Oaklawn Park racetrack. They’re installed in a luxury private box. “Well, our dad only dies once,” says Frank, the eldest, raising a toast to the man they privately nicknamed “Big Bastard”.
At first sight, Frank, Johnny and Ned look the very picture of respectable sobriety, but as the horses line up in their starting gates and the beers and shots flow, festering family tensions explode into the room with alarming violence. Their controlling father has left them nothing but a glut of neuroses. Frank (Robert M. Foster) is an alcoholic bully. Loser Ned (Malcolm Madera) is pinning his hopes on a big win so he can open a florist’s. Handsome Johnny (Jake Silbermann), recently released from prison, tries his luck with the brothers’ long-suffering waitress, Becky (Teresa Stephenson), but even he can’t keep a lid on his demons.
With the overabundance of dramatic monologues on the fringe, it is ironic that this old-fashioned well-crafted play, in which the tension gets ratcheted up to snapping point should come as something of a breath of air. The skilled cast makes light work of Williams’s lively dialogue, with all four betraying the emotional cost suffered by their characters in trying to defy or outrun the past.
The action is a shade too long and the endless testosterone-fuelled wrestling bouts become increasingly repetitive, to the point where it appears as though the playwright is unsure exactly where to bring down the curtain. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here from the Camisade Theatre Company, who, unlike the Ballards, have a bright future ahead of them.