Can a house be evil? In Unbroken Circle the house where three generations of a poor, Texas family live appears to be the repository of and monument to an enduring evil. The house is in Galveston, and the time is 1970. Recently, the owner of the house died leaving a wife, sister-in-law, son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters behind. After his funeral, the survivors gather in the house to divide his possessions and honor his memory with as much duty as they can muster, which isn’t much because Grandpa Travis was an evil, evil man.
The title “Unbroken Circle” is a play on the refrain of the gospel song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the classic Christian hymn by Ada R. Habershon, often used for funerals. In the song, the singer asks if the cycle of life and death will be broken by the promise of life after death in Christ. The last verse goes “One by one their seats were emptied. / One by one they went away. / Now the family is parted. / Will it be complete one day?” But for Grandpa Travis’s family, the circle that binds them and the house that holds them is the multi-generational cycle of abuse that we very much want to be broken, and we should doubt whether any of these people want to see each other in the afterlife.
And so Unbroken Circle partakes of the genre of Southern Gothic and melodrama. Aunt June’s holy roller Christianity is a foil for the progressive, secular liberalism of her niece, who escaped her family home at fifteen, went to college and is now, at thirty-five, an unmarried career woman. (This fact should strike the viewer as extraordinary given the play’s setting.) The central plot device — systematic sexual child abuse over two generations — is foreshadowed from the first minutes of the play, but true to the tradition, there are breathtaking twists and turns that at times stretch the limits of credulity. The horrors of Southern, white poverty put on gothic fright masks for the voyeuristic gaze of a well-heeled, urban audience.
Grandpa Travis’s undying (or undead?) presence, which is embodied in the house he promised to leave to sister-in-law June, acts as the invisible, pervasive power of Patriarchy against which the women of the play shine. This is very much a gynocentric play, and the very talented group of women actors, including Suzanna Hay, Anika Larsen, and Eve Plumb (Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!) elevate what could have been a Texas twister of hysterical outbursts into plains brush fire, moving slowly with intensity and building heat.
The house itself — the set of the house I mean — is a convoluted, twisted, labyrinthine thing. That may be an intentional comment on Evil Grandpa Travis’s (and the unnamed Great-Grandpa’s) heart, though for the audience’s sake evil could have been a little more simple. James Wesley’s script calls for several locations within the house, and the action sometimes goes back and forth in one scene between the living room / dining room and the kitchen (for example). That means the actors have to move back and around a dividing wall with accompanying light effects at high speed, and the viewer may think they are seeing a game of tag at a disco instead of an unfolding family tragedy.
But this single infelicity of design aside, Mr. Wesley did an admirable job tying the threads of this complex story together, as he does an admirable job playing Bobby, the one and only male character in the play. Ultimately you go to a show to be dazzled and entertained, and Unbroken Circle does both, with sympathy and charm.