Young actors elevate dark ‘Tusk Tusk’
Big sister Maggie (Olivia Cygan) comforts little brother Finn (Gabriel Stern) in "Tusk Tusk," about siblings living alone after their mentally ill mother vanishes.
Through Oct. 7
Piven Theater Workshop, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
www.piventheatre.org; (847) 866-6597
Updated: September 17, 2012 3:44PM
The descent from The Boxcar Children to Lord of the Flies comes steep and fast in Polly Stenham’s “Tusk Tusk.”
For the three abandoned siblings left to fend for themselves after their mother goes missing, the degeneration of the eldest from caring, supportive brother to rage-filled abuser is as rapid as it is alarming. Eliot, 16, may have the best intentions but it’s only a short journey before he’s locking his 14-year-old sister Maggie and 7-year-old brother Finn in a dark, dank basement so frightening that young Finn wets his pants.
Directed by Jennifer Green for Piven Theatre, “Tusk Tusk” is a flawed play elevated by a cast that captures the overwhelming desperation, fear, frustration and the intense, wrenching longing of the three youngsters as they try to keep their mother’s disappearance a secret and avoid being split up and sent “into care” as wards of the state. (Their fear of foster homes is justified: As Tusk Tusk’s dramaturgy notes, in Great Britain, children of the state are often sexually abused, and far more likely than their parented peers to grow up to be unemployed, suicidal or exploited as prostitutes.)
So when their troubled mother vanishes, Eliot, Maggie and Finn enter into a dire secret agreement: They’ll care for themselves, no matter that they are spectacularly ill-equipped — emotionally and financially — to do so. At the crux of the action is the psychological disintegration of Eliot and the increasing desperation of Maggie as their lives go from raucous birthday parties and free-wheeling games of pretend into bleak, fearsome violence.
Subsisting on potato chips and Chinese take out, the three start out well enough. Finn bounds through the apartment joyfully pretending he is Max, hero of Where the Wild Things Are, seemingly oblivious to the fact that something is very, very wrong. Maggie finds a stash of money in the unpacked boxes that fill the apartment, giving at least a temporary illusion of security to the children. And Eliot takes on the duties of provider, heading out at night to buy food for his brother and sister, impressing upon them the paramount importance of sticking together.
In the slow first act of “Tusk Tusk,” Stenham provides a detailed portrait of the relationship between the three, especially Eliot and Maggie. The children are intensely close — for all their charged banter and rough-housing, they share a bond that’s unmistakable (and seems to stop just short of incestuous). He’s the adored big brother, she’s the trusting co-conspirator.
The primary fault with “Tusk Tusk” lies in its overlong first act. Stenham takes her time setting up the complex dynamic between siblings; it’s not until the second act that they embark on their cataclysmic emotional journeys. The piece would be far more powerful pared to a taut 90 minutes. As it is, there’s a stasis to the first hour as Stenham meticulously establishes mood and circumstance.
Still, with the latter half of “Tusk Tusk,” Green’s cast delivers some thrilling performances, work that belies their young ages. As Eliot, 16-year-old Bryce Lunsky captures all the emotionally and physically fraught contradictions of a young man forced early into shouldering responsibilities he just can’t handle. In 14-year-old Maggie, Olivia Cygan, 18, portrays a girl caught in a trap of early adulthood, at once fervently trying to shoulder the burdens of adult responsibility, secrets and shame and passionately longing to confess all to an adult. Cherubic Gabriel Stern (Finn) is a wholly believable bundle of energy, laughter and tears as a 7-year-old at the mercy of a scary, grownup world that provides little shelter or security for a boy in a wrenchingly vulnerable state.
And in scenic designer Chad Bianchi’s towering set of cardboard boxes, all three are fittingly overwhelmed by a chaotic, transient world in which nothing is where it belongs and the most basic necessities of everyday security are hopelessly lost.