ORLANDO — J.D. Sutton gives a truly moving performance as Oscar, even though he plays a man who could easily be described as annoying, petulant, cranky and sometimes totally insufferable.
Oscar is an elderly man in an expensive assisted living facility, mourning the death of his wife. Oscar can’t stand the idea of sleeping alone in the bed he shared with her for all those years, and he doesn’t want to live alone now, seen daily by caregivers. He’d much prefer living with his son Richard and his partner, David … except that David has finally convinced Richard to proceed with the adoption of a child, and they don’t anticipate having room for Oscar, or, with both them having full-time jobs, being able to properly care for him.
So Oscar complains a lot. Yes, he has the occasional gentle moment, but overall he truly does find a lot in life to kvetch about, causing Richard and his sister Laura no end of grief and suffering.
No wonder Richard has a dream — and a deeply troubling one, he tells David — that his father had turned into a giant monster and started chasing him.
Here’s a hint: if you go to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater to see their terrific production of “The Luckiest People,” pay careful attention to Richard as he describes that dream. It seems like a throwaway moment at first, a son so fed up with his overbearing and demanding elderly father that he’s even having nightmares about him … but it’s not. Listen closely.
“The Luckiest People” is the first in a series of three plays by Meridith Friedman, and I struggled at first to decide whether to call it a drama or a comedy. At lot of what happens in this play is very funny, thanks in particular to Sutton, who at his most crotchety can be side-splittingly funny, and from Suzanne O’Donnell as Laura, who has far less patience with her father than Richard does. There are few funnier scenes in the play than when Laura buys the wrong bagels and it nearly leads to a World War III moment with Oscar.
It’s also a play with a lot of dramatic scenes — some of them quite poignant, and others deeply sad. I finally decided to point out that the play accurately reflects the things we all experience in middle age — some of it annoyingly funny (for all the wrong reasons), and quite a bit of it becoming a genuine emotional struggle, especially when there are no easy answers and lots of potential for terribly hurt feelings among your loved ones. That’s a lot of what happens in this play, which to Friedman’s credit doesn’t strive for easy answers.
Laura, for example, lives far from her father and brother, and seems all too happy to head back home, leaving Richard to make the big decisions about his father’s care. There’s some tension between brother and sister, particularly when Richard finds Laura’s cell phone ringing and answers it — but starts to suspect that her reasons for coming out to visit them have nothing whatsoever to do with the family or the care being given to her father.
And there’s a growing tension between Richard and David as it becomes clear that David is far more enthusiastic about adopting a child than Richard is. That tension starts building when Richard reconsiders whether his father should move in with them.
But the most explosive relationship is between Richard and Oscar, who finally admits how much he resents his son for not taking extreme life-saving measures for his mother — who Richard insists didn’t want that. It leads to one of the play’s most agonizingly intimate and difficult to watch moments between them.
It’s easy to get caught up in the lives of this family, and to relate to what they’re going through. And I can’t imagine any way that the ending won’t take you completely by surprise, as it did with me.
Sutton and O’Donnell both pour all of their rich talent into their roles, although Steven Lane as Richard and Alexander Mrazek as David are equally moving in quieter roles. The play’s willingness to open us up to the most private, hurtful and distressing moments in the character’s lives makes for a wonderfully rewarding experience.
“The Luckiest People” is being performed now through April 29 at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park. The show runs for 1 hour and 45 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission.
Call the box office at 407-447-1700 for tickets and more information.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com or call 321-209-1561.