Steep Theatre’s must-see ‘Festen’ festers with tension as family secrets are revealed and dismissed

“Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Isn’t that how the joke goes?

Well, that river flows free and clear in Festen, Steep Theatre’s must-see production of David Eldridge’s adaptation of the Dogme 95 film and play by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr. Hansen. (Now there’s a mouthful.)

A family gathers to celebrate the patriarch’s 60th birthday. While on the surface this seems a joyous occasion, lurking in the shadows and closets of this wealthy family’s sprawling estate are secrets, lies and hidden tragedies. It seems that just before the party, Christian’s twin sister committed suicide, and she’s left a suicide note. The other sister, Helene (Julia Siple), finds it, and we suspect the contents of the note are revealing — but she hides the note in a pill bottle in her purse. Meanwhile, Christian (Kevin Stark) has two speeches prepared to give in honor of his father during the evening’s black-tie celebratory dinner — one in a green envelope, the other blue. The father chooses the green one, which Christian calls a “truth speech.” And, as promised, the truth, as unexpected as it is ugly, comes out. However, after a breathless pause, the family mechanically snaps back to merriment, traditional toasting and civilized discourse.

It’s like those videos you see of a kid getting beaten up by a pack of bullies, while people — grown adults — walk right by.

Disgusted, and looking a bit like he may hurl, Christian excuses himself from the table. But the battle is not over. No, not by a long shot. The tension mounts as the dinner wears on…

It’s fascinating to watch as this family’s carefully cultivated social constructs are turned upside down. Director Jonathan Berry’s smart staging magnifies the power play between Christian and his domineering father (for example, just look at where the people sit at the dinner table at the beginning and end of the play). To keep us off balance, Christian’s “truth” comes into question more than a few times, inviting you to reevaluate your position of siding with the family vs. the suddenly ostracized Christian — or somewhere in between.

The acting? Outstanding. Aside from Stark’s searing performance, I was particularly taken by Norm Woodel as the father. When confronts by his son, Woodel seems genuinely concerned for the state of his son’s mental health, making you unsure if this is a man worn down from years of managing a mentally unstable son, or a masterful manipulator.

In a way, Festen reminded me of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s Pultizer Prize-winning play. Christian’s brave decision to upset the apple cart by revealing necessary truths is not unlike Sister Aloysius’ dogmatic fight against the Catholic Church’s rigidly established structure in maintaining her belief that Father Flynn molested an alter boy. Whose story do we believe? However, unlike Doubt, the truth becomes crystal clear at Festen‘s satisfying, if startling, conclusion.

See this play, people.

“Festen” plays through July 10 at Steep Theatre, 115 W. Berwyn Avenue. More info here >

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