July 7 2010 12:40 PM

Even God can't save these enemies from themselves in Ion Theatre's Parasite Drag

theater_07-07
Ronnie (John Polak) and Joellen (Susan Hammons) rehash the past as an old friend eagerly listens in.

Like all hard-line Christians, Gene can barely breathe under the weight of his two crosses—the one he wears on his sleeve to declare his faith and the one that governs his life, which resides inextricably up his ass. The latter is much the larger, crafted from decades of Church-fueled guilt and held together by memories of a family's violent dysfunction. Gene's faith is a figment of his blunted, ugly imagination—and now that God has hit him with a real-life left hook, true Christian peace is more elusive than ever.

This may seem off-point for a story about a horny wife, a bad stretch of small-town Illinois weather, a plastic goose, the down-home pleasures of Kentucky Friend Chicken and an assortment of sick family secrets involving incest and suicide. But the play, after all, is Parasite Drag, a black comedy that relies on such disconnected subtext to drive its climax home.

The Ion Theatre Company entry has its drawbacks, like the hidebound dialogue (almost every sentence seems to start with a pronoun) and writer Mark Roberts' tacky tendency to resort to family gossip in exposing his characters. But we're talking Ion here, the city's de facto anchor for all things darkly funny—if director Glenn Paris is aware of the sketchy writing in this West Coast premiere, he hides it well amid his thoughtful coaching.

He pegs Gene's estranged atheist brother Ronnie (John Polak) for what he is—a card-carryin', shit-kickin', redneck Kentucky bully-boy who rubs Gene's nose in the word “fuck” at every turn. “This is a Christian home,” Gene woodenly responds; the sparks fly anew as both men forget what's brought them to Gene's place—the savage gang-rape and beating of their druggie sister, dying of AIDS at a local hospital. Polak is excellent in the show's best role; his swagger and assured vocals fuel the other characters' many traits.

Less persuasive is Andy Collins as Gene. Collins has Gene's uptightness down-pat, but except for Gene's voice, that bearing never seems to shift with the action as the men air the family's dirty laundry. Gene and wife Joellen haven't done the bunny hop in eight years (!), and Susan Hammons brings a good stoicism to Joellen's frustration. There's more to Ronnie's dog-eared wife Susie than meets the eye, and Kim Strassburger has a handle on her dim wit and quiet humanity.

Both men eventually collapse on JR Bruce's tidy set; religion, and the lack of it, are irrelevant amid the sordid past they share. They're more alike than different in spite of themselves, and this show reflects that sad fortune with maturity and depth.    

This review is based on the opening matinée of July 3. Parasite Drag runs through July 24 at BLK BOX @
6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. $25. iontheatre.com.

Write to marty@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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