In the final scene of One House Over, protagonist Joanne Vacura (Elaine Rivkin) sits stunned at a patio table in the backyard of her suburban Chicago home. Surrounding her is the detritus of a party gone horribly awry.
America's melting pot has boiled over into her backyard oasis. Shame and regret are strewn among the paper plates.
Joanne's manicured backyard is the setting of One House Over, which is having its world premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. In it, playwright Catherine Trieschmann takes on xenophobia by inserting it into a compelling story about four broken people living together, but all living in very different realities and turning in vain to each other for things they cannot give.
It's a strong narrative that demonstrates the many ways in which the toxicity of U.S. immigration policy poisons the everyday lives of a large swath of America.
The story is set in 2010, allowing Trieschmann to exploit the now-ironic confidence that flourished among progressives following Barack Obama’s election. The nation had righted itself, Joanne says. It’s a new America, she proclaims, free of the divisive leadership of its past.
The stunning set, which perfectly replicates the backyard of a vintage suburban Chicago home, grounds the play and sets the tone. The set perfectly serves the play, and the attention to detail by scenic designer Kevin Depinet enhances the feeling of authenticity.
The home belongs to Joanne, a divorced violin teacher. She would be an empty nester if not for her curmudgeonly elderly father Milos (Mark Jacoby), for whom she's providing home care. He's a Czech immigrant who fled to America to escape Hitler.
Joanne hires Camila (Zoe Sophia Garcia), a Mexican-American, to assume her care-taking duties. Joanne feels guilty, as if she’s abandoning her daughterly responsibilities, which ultimately leads to complications.
It’s clear from the start that Camila is an undocumented worker, but Joanne shrugs it off. She’s a self-proclaimed liberal, unaware that she’s blind to the white privilege that will vex her decision. Dismissive of immigration law, she’s more concerned about maintaining workable boundaries between her household and that of Camila, whom she learns will live with her husband Rafael (Justin Huen) in Joanne’s basement apartment.
A 50-something single woman, Joanne has built an emotional wall around herself, and she doesn't want anyone sneaking across it.
Despite the dark complexities of the situation that unfolds in the first act, it plays like a television sitcom. The knee-slapping laughs keep coming, priming the audience for the consequences that make for a very different second act.
The story is told in a series of cinematic-style scenes, which flow quickly thanks to the cast members, who not only prove emotionally agile but also helpful with prop changes. Effective bridge music by Joe Cerqua also aids the transitions.
There’s one other character — Patty (Jeanne Paulsen), a lonely neighbor who lives one house over. The emotional distance between her and Joanne is a reminder that boundaries separate people for more than racial and ethnic differences.
Rep artistic director Mark Clements makes a tight ensemble of the play’s disparate characters. His touch is apparent in the actors’ flawless comic delivery. You’d be hard-pressed to name a production in which the comedy is handled with such precision. The actors’ timing is impeccable, and they hold for laughs for just the right amount of time to ensure that no dialogue gets lost.
The actors also rise above the stereotypes they represent to create distinct and memorable characters. Garcia is touching, balancing Camila’s no-nonsense personality with both tenderness and anger.
Rafael is both the group’s peacemaker and troublemaker. He's a manipulative opportunist, but in Huen’s textured, standout performance, Rafael's boyish charm and inherent sincerity redeem him.
Camila and Rafael have passion and energy that Joanne, Milos and Patty are drawn to. As in old-fashioned pot boilers, the character contrasts drive the plot.
Paulsen is wonderful as the nuisance neighbor. Her deadpan insults get big laughs, but we easily see that her hostile antics are a plea for attention.
Trieschmann’s social critique is spot-on and packs a wallop, but it’s the play’s excellent storytelling and surprising hilarity that make it a sure-fire hit. The opening-night audience lapped up the comedy with relish. Despite the play’s wrenching ending, the post-show crowd at the elevators was still chuckling over the play's many funny moments.
Just one critical note: Trieschman occasionally hammers the “meaning” of a scene with an unnecessarily heavy hand — as if to avoid losing the gravitas beneath the humor. That might be worth a second look as the play continues forward in development.
One House Over is part of Clements’ ongoing commitment to bringing Milwaukee together through theater by featuring diverse people and their experiences on the stage. Talkbacks and programs about the issues are presented in conjunction with each production, bringing attention and insight to pressing social problems. In this case the primary issue is the urgent need for action on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA.
Clements’ efforts have made the Rep a major force for progress in bridging Milwaukee’s racial and cultural fault lines.
At the end of One House Over, Patty reminds Joanne that the world is much bigger than her backyard. Through the efforts of leaders like Clements, perhaps someday it will be.