The Lyons. Photo: David Allen
Lisa (r. Jessica Bates) greets her dying father Ben (c. Will Marchetti), and mother Rita (l. Ellen Ratner*), in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere of The Lyons. Photo: David Allen

In the opening act of The Lyons, Nicky Silver’s bitingly funny and undeniably moving play, we are in a hospital room in New York, where Ben Lyon (Will Marchetti) lies terminally ill with cancer, cursing with pain, as his wife Rita (Ellen Ratner, After the Revolution) thumbs through decorating magazines, casually discussing her plans to redecorate their living room after Ben dies. Not your average loving couple merely engaging in bickering banter, Ben and Rita have struggled through 40 years in a difficult marriage burdened by disappointment and regret.

Into the hospital room timidly peeks adult daughter, Lisa (Jessica Bates, After the Revolution) a single mother of two boys, recently separated from her husband. Lisa struggles to cope with her day-to-day life as well as her psychological and alcohol issues. She’s clearly uncomfortable and distressed by her parents, seemingly more because her father’s condition was kept from her for months, than the fact that he is dying.

Son Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar, Dublin Carol and Marius) makes an appearance at the hospital, although Ben and Rita did not expect him to show up. A writer of short stories, Ben works hard to keep his private life separate from his parents, but made the mistake of confiding in his sister.

Rita is clearly the head of this dysfunctional family, and despite her call for a “pleasant visit,” her egocentricity, bluntness and wisecracks cut to the quick. And what makes them all the more trenchant, is that her remarks are dead on. Rita is a survivor, whose zest for life trumps all else. Although she seems to love her children, her behavior keeps them at arms’ length. At least she doesn’t idealize them. She and Ben’s frank assessment of their children is refreshingly honest.

The Lyons. Photo: David Allen
Curtis (r. Nicholas Pelczar) is depressed about his father while looking at an apartment with his real estate agent (l. Joe Estlack) in The Lyons. Photo: David Allen

Very quickly the family reverts to their old routine of savaging each other, and by the close of the second act, their dark secrets have been revealed. Perhaps this the tortured way in which they show love for each other.

“I didn’t name them the Lyons by chance, I’ll say that,” Silver (Pterodactyls, Raised in Captivity) said in an interview for the Vineyard Theatre, which produced the 2011 premiere of The Lyons, prior to its Broadway run in 2012.

The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Ellen Ratner as Rita. Will Marchetti’s Ben is a perfect foil for her. Jessica Bates and Nicholas Pelczar are convincingly disturbed, and disturbing, as Lisa and David.

Skillful direction by Tony-nominated director Barbara Damashek (American Buffalo, Fat Pig, Private Jokes, Public Places) and author Silver’s black humor, sophisticated writing, searing incites and clever one-liners serve to sustain the play as a dark comedy, rather than a weepy tragedy.

The Lyons’s troubled characters each suffer from a profound feeling of isolation and fear of being alone above all else. Yet, by the end of the play, they seem to understand that healthy human connections may lead to their recovery and redemption.

The Lyons runs through March 8. For tickets and information, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...