By Kym Reinstadler
ANN ARBOR – There's child abuse at the core of Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis's "Apple Season" that's buried so deep it's never spoken. It's through the intimately drawn character portraits of a brother and sister returning for the first time in 20 years to the hometown — and, more specifically, the home life they fled as high school students — that the audience can connect the dots that reveal their trauma.
The event that calls them back to the family farm is the death of their alcoholic father. The older brother, Roger (Matthew Swift), who orchestrated the siblings' escape, has long pretended to be dead to stop the night terrors that his abusive father will hunt him down like an animal and kill him.
Roger, an itinerant ranch hand, survives without close human attachments. He returns for his father's funeral only for proof that the tyrant is at last dead. Roger is not open to the possibility of healing childhood wounds. He leaves town directly from the service and won't accompany his sister Lissie back to the family farm where there is much work to be done because it's apple season.
Lissie (Alysia Kolascz), who has inherited the homestead, spends the afternoon following the funeral picking apples and remembering, through dramatic flashbacks, the traumatic events that caused her brother to steal a car and drive 400 miles to a small town where they could live in hiding.
Lissie grew up, got an education and now teaches fourth-graders in her sanctuary town. It becomes clear when neighbor Will Rizzell (Jeremy Kucharek), a farmer by choice, drops by the orchard to ask if she'll sell him the farm, that Lissie is still carrying the heavy emotional baggage of her childhood.
Neither Lissie nor Will (known as Billy as a boy) has ever married. The two have chemistry, and shared a single kiss before Roger and Lissie fled as teens. As the two chat in the orchard, the audience feels an unspoken promise that Lissie could create a bright new future on the family farm with this long-left first-love Will, if only she could unburden herself.
The pain and shame of child abuse are deeply woven into her middle-aged identity. Casting off such chains will require both superhuman fortitude and emotional support. The one-hour-and-15-minute play's dramatic conclusion leaves the audience hopeful that Lissie has found both.
"Apple Season" debuted in 2019 with performances in New Jersey, Iowa and Los Angeles. Theatre Nova's production is its Michigan premier. The show pivots on a very tough topic, but handles it in a contemplatively paced, gentle, talk-around-it way that is, I believe, no less powerful. It leaves audiences to ponder the courage required to confront a troubled past. If such wounds can be healed, how does one begin?
I was part of an audience that loved the show. People stood and applauded enthusiastically afterward.
To be sure, director David Wolber gives us an expert staging of the script, Monica Spencer's set design of an apple orchard at harvest time and stone barn with antique apple press is exquisite. Lighting director Daniel C. Walker's lighting design illuminates the flashbacks, where the three characters play younger versions of themselves. The acting ensemble is terrific, especially Kucharek.
Nevertheless, I found myself wishing that Lewis had added more flesh to this skeleton of a script. What happened to the unseen father in the 20 years between his kids running away and his own death? If he looked for Roger and Lissie, why couldn't he find them? Audiences can't assume much about the abusive father other than he kept the orchard going.
More perplexing is why Roger and Lissie, who share knowledge of the family secret and made the harrowing escape, don't remain close geographically or emotionally as adults. The script is good. With a little more detail, it could be even better.
"Apple Season" will continue running through Feb. 23. Tickets are available online at theatrenova.org.
By Kym Reinstadler