A Brand New Family Dramedy – or – This is That Play
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Presented by: Cadence Theatre and Virginia Rep
At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219
Performances: March 9-19, 2023
Ticket Prices: $13 – $43
Info: Tickets are sold by Dominion Energy Center, (800) 514-3849 or https://www.dominionenergycenter.com/events/detail/cross-stitch-bandits
Where to begin? Let’s start with the obvious. I was very impressed with Faith Carlson’s set design for CROSS STITCH BANDITS. The performing area of the Gottwald Playhouse was transformed into a reasonable facsimile of a house – not just an apartment or living space, but a house. While we could see a small kitchen, dining area, living room, and craft space, there were also stairs to the upper floor, a hallway to the rest of the main floor, and part of a backyard with a small refrigerator, a couple of folding chairs, and a weed whacker abandoned on a strip of artificial grass. Later another piece of turf was temporarily laid out as part of one of the play’s most hilarious scenes – the scene that gives the play its title.
Why so much detail on this show’s set? Because it is indicative of the level of detail that went into this production. The details are part of what made this story so enjoyable. CROSS STITCH BANDITS is the story of David, a “retired” engineer, whose family has planned a surprise retirement party for him. Here’s where it gets dicey, because it’s hard to talk about the significant scenes without revealing the spoilers, so if something doesn’t make sense from here on out, you’ll just have to go see it for yourself to fill in the blanks.
What I can safely say is that David is a likeable guy who places family first, but his stressful (perfectionist? OCD? Controlling?) tendencies tend to throw a monkey wrench into absolutely everything he touches and unnecessarily complicate all his relationships. Usually, we are taught to avoid hyperbole, but it applies to David. Nothing is safe from his need to have everything in its place, whether a dirty glass or an adult child. David’s wife, Jeanne, an affable woman with a mediator’s personality, is a Vice Principal who crochets to relieve the stress of her job. Their daughter Kaija, a recent law school graduate, is awaiting the results of the bar exam, and their son Drew has ditched college for a career as a magician. Drew has been placed in charge of his father’s retirement party, which has some unexpected props to support it’s off-beat theme as the family gathers to bid a final farewell to “Work Dave.” The theme actually developed from a real-life anecdote in the playwrights’ lives.
I enjoyed the interactions between the characters. Otto Konrad as David and Dorothy “Dee-D.” Miller felt authentic as a long-married and loving couple that has settled into a comfortable routine. Cross Stitch Bandits introduces them at the point of a bump in the road, a temporary detour. Tatjana Shields, the daughter, seems to be holding onto a secret – one she eventually reveals. Cyrus Mooney as Drew is the hardest character to get to know. He has quirky gestures and body language, and I was never sure if these characteristics were because Drew the character was a magician who was always “on” or if it was because Mooney the actor was still exploring his character, trying on speech and movement patterns for size. It could be a bit of both.
I found it interesting that David and Jeanne were partners in an interracial marriage only to have Konrad reveal in a talkback after Sunday afternoon’s matinee that the authors had described his character as 61 years old and “anything but white.” Ethnicity is never addressed in the play, yet the visual evidence is undeniable, and the children have been equitably cast with a white presenting son and a black presenting daughter. This seems to make no difference in the development of the story, yet even silent representation matters. Who, I wonder, did the authors see playing these roles. . .
The family issues presented by new playwrights Sanam Laila Hashemi and Steven Burneson (a soon-to-be married couple in real life) are relatable and universal. When we laugh at David and Jeanna, or David and Drew’s zany nighttime adventure, we are laughing at ourselves, at our own families. I think that also makes any imperfections, inconsistencies, and unanswered questions easier to accept – they are ours and we own them.
What imperfections, inconsistencies, and unanswered questions you ask? Well, if David is an engineer, why does he have a malfunctioning weed whacker and refrigerator? In one scene, Drew takes out a bowl and spoon to get some ice cream, but finds the ice cream has melted, so he exchanges his bowl for a glass. What happened to the refrigerator? We see David pour some of spilled ashes from his late father’s urn into the nonfunctional weed whacker. What was his motivation? Was it to honor the memory of his father who once fixed the broken things or was it a symbolic act to add dust to dust, ashes to ashes, or something else entirely? Drew entered a major magician’s competition – did he win, or even place?
Shields explained during the talkback that in the script Drew is 31 years old and Kaija is the younger sister, but because in real life she is older, they switched ages onstage. Why does that matter? You’re both acting, and how does the audience know or why should we care about your real ages?
There is a fifth character, friend and neighbor Neil, played by Landon Nagel. There is controversy surrounding Neil as well. A former prodigy of the controlling David, over time their roles have switched, but again, I can’t tell you too much about it without revealing more spoilers. Suffice it to say that under the mentorship of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and Cadence’s Pipeline New Works Fellowship Program, Hashemi and Burneson have successfully brought a new story to life onstage. All things work together for good, including the work of scenic designer Faith Carlson, costume designer Sarah Grady, lighting designer Weston Corey, and sound designer Joey Luck. Kudos, also, to director Sharon Ott for, in the words of Konrad, letting the story tell itself.
NOTE: A few friends and I spent some time talking about the title, CROSS STITCH BANDITS. Jeanne is a crocheter, and we concluded that cross stitch and crochet are mutually exclusive. However, a bit of research revealed that there is, in fact, a crochet stitch called a cross stitch or single cross stitch. So there you have it. And CROSS STITCH BANDIT has a much better ring than Crochet Bandit.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
CROSS STITCH BANDITS
A World Premiere
Written by Sanam Laila Hashemi and Steven Burneson
Directed by Sharon Ott
Cross Stitch Bandits was conceived and developed through Cadence’s Pipeline New Works Fellowship Program
David Otto Konrad
Jeanna Dorothy “Dee-D.” Miller
Drew Cyrus Mooney
Neil Landon Nagel
Kaija Tatjana Shields
Director Sharon Ott
Assistant Director Molly Marsh
Scenic Designer Faith Carlson
Costume Designer Sarah Grady
Lighting Designer Weston Corey
Sound Designer Joey Luck
Properties Designer Ellie Wilder
Technical Directors Becka Russo and Vinnie Gonzalez
Set Dressing Faith Carlson
Production/Stage Manager Shawanna Hall
Photos Jay Paul
SETTING AND TIME:
2010, somewhere in a small city in the US
Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission