It is fitting that Neil LaBute dedicates his 2007 semi-autobiographical play In a Dark Dark House to Sam Shepard, of whom LaBute writes in the preface: “it was easy enough to dedicate this work to a man who writes with the skill of an artist and the soul of a survivor.”
The most immediate connection theater lovers will make to Dark House — currently given an area premiere by Dallas-based Proper Hijinx Productions using Amphibian Stage Productions’ space — is Shepard’s masterful True West, another tale of brothers who have long been rivals and with an ending that doesn’t necessarily resolve anything.
In In a Dark Dark House, LaBute — who has often been called misanthropic for the way humans treat other humans in plays like In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things and Fat Pig — the brothers are Terry (Jeff Burleson, who has been in all five of Proper Hijinx’s shows) and Drew (Aaron White).
Throughout the play secrets are uncovered from deeper and darker places, and the audience isn’t sure whom to trust or hate the least.
The latter is a rich lawyer who has been disbarred and begins the play in a hoity-toity psychiatric unit, where he’s under observation. He has asked the older Terry to help him fill in some pieces from their past related to a mutual friend they had as youths.
Throughout the play secrets are uncovered from deeper and darker places, and the audience isn’t sure whom to trust or hate the least. That question gets harder to decide after the second of three scenes (called “parts” in LaBute’s script), which involves Terry meeting a confident 16-year-old girl Jennifer (Madeleine Morris) at a putt-putt golf course. (LaBute’s preface in the published play references William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, another hint to the subject matter, if you know the Inge play.)
The early LaBute plays on which his reputation was built were scarce on likeable characters, and he hasn’t abandoned that here. Jennifer, especially in Morris’ smart performance, is the exception.
Proper Hijinx founder Stefany Cambra is a young director who is still finding her footing, but here she continues to show promise. In the first part, she has Burleson and White moving and fidgeting too much, some of which is on the actors; it’s distracting either way. But they do settle in soon enough and it’s easy to believe they are brothers, bound to each other by blood, if nothing else.
They, and Cambra, hit the peaks and valleys of mutual hatred, discomfort, jealousies and attempts to understand the other. The director does make an interesting choice for Drew at the very beginning that’s not in LaBute’s script — and it works.
As production designers, Cambra and Devon Miller keep the set simple, just a few platforms, chairs and seating spots, and a putt-putt green.
It might seem an odd choice for the holiday slot, but then again, family members at war is kind of apropos. Just don’t expect any kind of cheer that most people look for in the performing arts this time of year. That’s not LaBute’s thing.
If LaBute’s plays are your thing, this one is a worth the inexpensive ticket price to keep tabs on one of the area’s up-and-coming theater companies.
Plus, half of the show’s proceeds will benefit the Suicide Crisis Center and the newly formed Grace and Brian Loncar Foundation. The Loncars, father and daughter, both died in the past month, and Brian’s wife and Grace’s mother, Sue, ran Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the basement space where Proper Hijinx got its start.
In a Dark Dark House
- Through Dec. 18
- Proper Hijinx Productions at Amphibian Stage Productions
- 120 S. Main St., Fort Worth