Playwright Susan Johnston examines a complicated type of loss — one that impacts everyone involved like a rock tossed into a pond, rippling across the years. There are several fascinating moments in this new 90-minute one-act, thanks mostly to four impressive actors and Casey Stangl's seamless direction. But ultimately Johnston's decision to compartmentalize the action into more than 30 scenes keeps How Cissy Grew from coalescing into an emotionally powerful story. Instead, putting equal importance on almost every scene leaves the whole feeling flat.
Told in jumbled chronological sequences across the last 20 years in Charleston, W.V., the story's core is the kidnapping of Cissy (Liz Vital) as an infant while in the care of her pot-smoking, alcoholic dad, Butch (James Denton). Cissy's mother, Darla (Erin J. O'Brien), who also has drug and alcohol problems, is never able to forgive Butch, even though Cissy was soon recovered and the kidnapper was sentenced to life in prison. The remaining scenes concern how the crime shaped Cissy's adolescence, including a romance with a young Christian boy (Stewart W. Calhoun), as well as how it fractured each relationship in the family.
Johnston's strongest suit is in building believable characters, each deeply flawed and in denial, but all intelligent and wishing to make healthier decisions. And substantial emotional layers are laid on top by the ensemble. Vital stores anger and resentment behind Cissy's cool faรงade, as she appears barely able to speak without wanting to strike out at everyone. O'Brien ably handles the difficult task of making Darla appear to be a mother who, despite her self-absorptions, truly cares for her daughter. And Denton floods his performance as Butch with a quiet desperation that, at times, evokes deep sadness. Stangl keeps the action flowing through the many scenes but also allows for space to let the actors breathe.
But Johnston's script reads more like a writing exercise, its objective to write as many climactic moments as possible. Almost every scene reveals major plot points — pregnancy, addiction, breakups — to the point where nothing stands out. There are no buildups and letdowns, only pronouncements. The result: How Cissy Grew is loaded with meaty scenes for acting class, but it doesn't contain enough emotional variety to succeed as a full-fledged drama.
Presented by and at the El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Oct. 18-Nov. 23. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. (818) 508-4200 or (866) 811-4111. www.elportaltheatre.com.