It was shocking to watch Jacob Mercer (Chris Mulkey) take off his belt and violently whip his eldest son in the final moments of Leaving Home. I daresay that is what has kept me from commenting on this play for such a long time until now. It had less to do with this show being an otherwise mostly low key performance or that it was a good show with good direction, populated and performed by really great actors or that I found anything particularly wrong with the production. It was my loathing as a human being at witnessing the family dysfunction that was presented here. It struck a heavy cord.
Leaving Home, set in the 1970s, written by Canadian playwright David French and listed as one of the 1000 essential plays in the Oxford Dictionary, currently at the Ruskin Group Theatre Company, is, according to director Barbara Tarbuck, a love story, an immigrant-generated struggle. And I suppose seen in its full 5 play cycle it does showcase a much more intensified view of that. However, seen as a single play, it had a slightly different effect. Whether or not Mr. French intended to spotlight the subject within his text, the issue of child ownership comes directly into play.
It’s a theme that resonates as much in Leaving Home as it does in classics like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; parents forcing their children to be adults – into making adult choices and decisions that will steer the course of their entire lives, and yet controlling every aspect as to who, when, what, why, and how they will do it, deciding for them, conditionally, regardless of the intention. There is so much blame, emotional recklessness and revenge-taking in the first installment of this episodic, that it’s difficult to see how anyone is going to be able to rise above any of the issues and break free. Jacob’s eldest son Ben (Kayde McMullen) tries.
With Jacob raising his sons to be men, it’s more than just proud father parenting. Sure there is love. I’m not saying Jacob is a heartless man or even that he is simply a man of his generation. But for all of his good qualities, he is weak. And when he rips up his son’s high school diploma, threatens to cut him off financially, prevents him from taking his books, empties his suitcase of clothing, then finally forces him down onto the kitchen table for a brutal dose of, “you’re not a man”, it’s not about love or discipline or a punishment for ungratefulness or disobedience, it’s intentional hurt, anger, jealousy and resentment for not being included in both his boys’ lives and the petty household secrets they keep with their mother Mary (Karen Landry). The surface argument here is the issue of Ben moving out of the house to live with his soon-to-be-married younger brother Bill (James Lastovic). Ben actually wants to respect his father by becoming the man Jacob desires him to be. He just wants to do it on his own terms. Part of Jacob’s fear though is that his son might actually succeed and that Ben’s independence will make him irrelevant as a man and a father. It’s a horrible emasculating moment for both of them.
In fact, the very behavior Jacob displays is exactly the kind foisted upon him by his own father in a past life only regarding the issue of religion, which is the cause of the strife surrounding the impending marriage of his son and pregnant daughter-in-law to be (Sierra Barter).
It’s ugly and it’s difficult to watch; which is the very reason to see this play in the first place. If you don’t feel confronted by the family dynamics and the subject matter in some way, then maybe you’ve had a blessed life free from turmoil. I think most of us however, are going to find something deeply resonant within this play, immigrant status aside.
Directed by Barbara Tarbuck
Produced by John Ruskin and Mike Myers
Starring Chris Mulkey, Karen Landry, Kayde McMullen, James Lastovic, Sierra Barter, and Mary Carrig
Show Run Time: 1 ½ hours