‘Freefall’ Explores Family Love & Strife

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‘Freefall’ Explores Family Love & Strife

Rebecca Johnson ’17 and Jabari Matthew ’17 portray wife and husband Alex and Grant in this production of “Freefall.”

Rebecca Johnson ’17 and Jabari Matthew ’17 portray wife and husband Alex and Grant in this production of “Freefall.”

Rebecca Johnson ’17 and Jabari Matthew ’17 portray wife and husband Alex and Grant in this production of “Freefall.”

Rebecca Johnson ’17 and Jabari Matthew ’17 portray wife and husband Alex and Grant in this production of “Freefall.”

By Sabine Poux, Arts & Science Editor

The Hepburn Zoo provides the perfect environment for a show about family. The audience’s proximity to the action unfolding onstage allows for complete immersion in the scene, verging on a sense of an intrusion into secret business. Even in the back row of the tiny theater, one is brought incredibly close to the actors, which creates a sense of intimacy that cannot be achieved in a larger venue.

Each scene in “Freefall” additionally gives off a sense of extreme closeness between the performers and the audience, as the show deals with deeply personal matters. “Freefall,” written by Charles Smith, follows all that unfolds when two estranged brothers reunite for the first time in over five years.

Their lives are entirely different from one another’s — the first of the brothers to be introduced, policeman and husband Grant (Jabari Matthew ’17), lives in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Beverly with his wife Alex (Rebecca Johnson ’17). Grant is able to turn away from his early life on the streets, while his brother Monk (Oliver Wijayapala ’17) is a homeless thief who has only recently been released from prison and struggles to resist provocation from dealer Spoon (Kahari Blue ’19) to get back in the drug game.

Though the brothers’ paths have diverged, they cannot stay out of each other’s lives: Grant secretly and regularly checks up on Monk when he gets out of prison, until one day Monk shows up on Grant’s doorstep. The two must deal with their differences, which are underlain by much resentment.

At one of the most gasp-worthy parts of the play, the audience finds out it was Grant who turned Monk in, and Monk blames Grant for the death of his two-year-old son who died soon after Monk was put behind bars.

Roxy Adviento ’18 directed the production. Caleb Green ’19 stage managed and Nicholas Leslie ’18 did technical direction.

“After taking two directing courses in the fall, this is the first actual play I have directed,” Adviento said. “I’ve mostly been an actor during my time in Middlebury and directing was something I just fell in love with in my junior year.”

Matthew and Wijayapala produced “Freefall,” and earned credit for their senior theater theses. They chose the show with the help of Adviento.

“‘Freefall’ was brought to me by Jabari [Matthew] and Oliver [Wijayapala],” she said. “I was definitely shocked and moved by the play and I was sold! I found myself gasping and laughing as I read it. I was also very excited to work with these two talented actors and with a cast and crew of POCs.”

The stage was split in half for the production, representing the two very different routes the brothers had taken in their adult lives. One side depicted the well-furnished living room of Grant and Alex’s home, while the other side featured a dilapidated, trash-strewn alleyway in Englewood. The polarization could not be more striking.

“For me I guess the biggest takeaway is that there’s two worlds in a play, the alleyway and a living room, and Monk and Grant kind of represent those two places,” Wijayapala said.

“Also, they represent the institutions they are part of; Grant is a police officer and Monk is a criminal, and they’re part of the larger institutions of the criminal justice system and the brotherhood. But the biggest institution they both struggle with is family, and how it overlaps between those two different worlds,” Wijayapala said. “And, granted, though they come from two different worlds, they’re both alike, and the more they realize they don’t need each other, the more they actually do need each other.”

The way in which the actors are costumed also created contrast between the brothers. While throughout the show, Grant and Alex show off Ralph Lauren-esque turtlenecks and sweater dresses, Monk sports a much different ensemble. At the end of the play, Grant even makes a point that they should burn Monk’s jacket because it smells so bad. Iram Asghar ’18, who put together the show’s costumes, did not pull any punches — the variance in wealth was not only apparent, but painfully obvious and polarizing.

There is much tension because of the socioeconomic divide between the brothers, who struggle to make peace with both the love and contempt they feel for one another.

There is also unexpected tension between Grant and Alex, brought to light by astute and honest Monk. Monk believes Grant’s life with Alex to be an escapist attempt to leave his old life behind, and in this “straw house” there is much unexplored conflict. Grant does not know Alex is pregnant, for example, though Monk notices right away, elucidating Grant’s inability to listen to Alex. This conflict comes to a head when Monk exposes the pregnancy to his brother.

A moment of tension that absolutely broke my heart came when Grant reveals to Monk that he was posing as “Mr. Ricky” — an old neighbor who Monk regards with extreme reverence — and writing Monk letters in jail. Monk cherished the letters, saying that they inspired him and kept him alive while he was locked up. The audience could feel Monk’s extreme anguish: Wijayapala’s facial expressions and passionate display of emotions said it all.

However, there are also moments of love that satisfyingly mitigate some of the familial tensions. Monk, when defending Alex on the street, refers to her as his sister — a moment that made me gasp with surprise and delight — showing the undeniability of family ties, a theme which pervades the whole show.

Through this theme and others, the various characters navigate through what it means to be a family, even one as untraditional as Grant and Monk’s.

“I think the biggest thing I want the audience to take away from this show is the commitment to family,” Matthew said. “Obviously this is a specific type of family, but I think that at the end of the day the bond and the love and the commitment to trying to create a strong family bond is something that I would hope that everybody can in some way, shape or form, relate to. That commitment to love, I hope that’s universal for everybody.”

One scene in which I felt this universality was during a tender moment between Monk and Alex. Monk questions whether Alex feels at home with Grant, and asks that if everyone else on Earth besides Grant became a stranger, she would be okay with having him alone. I was fascinated by Monk’s way of thinking about love, and this line has been ruminating with me ever since.

One of my favorite characters in the show was Spoon, who, according to a character breakdown from the play’s website, “would be working for IBM if born of a different race or class.”

“I think Spoon is very smart, and a lot of people might look at someone like him and look at the things he does and assume that he’s not,” Blue said, “but he’s actually a human being with a full body and a full range of emotion, and I think that finding his wit was really important for me in bringing out his humanity.”

Blue definitely succeeded at channeling this side of Spoon — throughout the show, Spoon was extremely smooth-talking and persuasive. My friend even noted that Blue’s voice was “like butter,” and the lines he said sounded like poetry. Blue was right in that I was not expecting him to be played the way that he was, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I also loved Johnson’s portrayal of Alex and her unexpected role as savior, when she comes into the house after Monk pulls a gun on his brother to prove himself to Spoon and the other members of “the Brotherhood.”

“I really felt connected to my character because I was the only woman in the play, and I feel like she was very strong throughout,” Johnson said. “And then, in the end, I think her determination to pull people together and think about family and people’s relationships to each other was what saved lives. It was wonderful to play such a strong female character in a play where she’s the only female character.”

The show was emotionally draining in the best way, and the resolutions at the end made me feel warm inside. (And, judging by the expressions of some of the audience members, I was not the only one who was touched.)

The power of the actors to communicate the bitter-sweet, complex family dynamics in “Freefall” was incredibly moving, and the small size of the cast and theater exposed each actor, showcasing his or her acting chops. All of which, by the way, were undeniably impressive.

“I loved working with these people,” said Adviento. “They are all my friends and I’ve just learned so much from them. Since none of us are actual ‘professionals,’ there were definitely bumps along the way. I think the most important part was that everyone kept it real and pushed through.”

“All the cast members were amazing and experienced actors,” added Wijayapala. “We also had an amazing director.”

In such a small cast and crew, that mutual respect is incredibly important and admirable.

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