Family Ties Bound To Be a Hit in for Human Race Theatre

Review by Liz Eichler of Family Ties: Human Race Theatre

The cast of “Family Ties”at Human Race Theatre

Imagine the television network pitch: liberal activist parents raising a conservative son. Comedy ensues. Would it work? Well, it worked for seven years on the CBS series Family Ties as a young Republican questioned his liberal parents’ values. It also works in Family Ties the Play.

Family Ties is a bittersweet look at raising children and growing up (both kids and parents admit to growing, up is another matter). This world premiere, fully supported by both CBS and NBC, opened June 2 in Dayton’s Human Race Theatre, and charmed the audience, much like the Emmy winning series.

The 1980’s show Family Ties was “must see TV” and America was transfixed for seven seasons with the progress of former 1960s hippies raising a politically conservative son, and two sweet and witty daughters. Focusing on the travails of Alex’s high school and college years, the theme of family first prevailed, no matter how differently they think.

Fast forward 20 years, and this play looks at the Keatons in 2008, a time of hope and change. Alex, the son, is running for senate in New York, after a successful Wall Street career. He realizes that he is embracing some of his parent’s politics, and looks forward to the possibility of the first black president. The girls are married with children, living nearby in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio.

They gather at their parent’s house to celebrate dad Steven’s 40 years managing a PBS station, and mom is there to referee. Comedy ensues, but overarching the comedy, is the heart felt connection and responsibility they have with each other: family comes first.

There is truth in this show. Clearly the playwright, Daniel Goldstein, understands the angst of living with young adults, biologically driven to push away from their parents. As they say in the play, every kid wonders if they really are related to these strangers. These conflicting tensions of wanting to be a part of something, but at the same time moving away from it, is a part of life. Here we get the perspective of the parents, and their pain and truth of living with these pre-fully adult beings, as well as the now-adult, as the play proceeds in a series of flashbacks. These times of cross purposes, conflicting needs, and sharing perspectives hit in the heart. I’d like my kids to see this character, Alex, as he finally sees the importance of passing advice from one generation to the other.

The cast delivers, both in likeness to the original characters, as well as comedy. Jim Stanek (Alex) carries the show. You will love him and his verbal and physical energy. He is a politician we would all love to see, driven for success, but with a core of humanity. Thea Brooks (Mallory) and Sara Mackie (Jennifer) are the lovable but different siblings, and flesh out their characters. (Season 5 addition, younger brother Andy, is in the Peace Corp and cannot get back for his father’s tribute.) First love, Ellen (Maggie Lou Rader), is featured in flashback, as Alex explores pivotal moments in his life which got him where he is today.

Lawrence Redmond (Steve) is both warm and formal, enthusiastic, and curious. Eve Plumb (Elyse) is the more grounded and serious parent, reeling in Steve’s idealism, while maintaining her own. She has a quieter strength and both are a joy to watch.

There are the familiar one-liners of a TV sitcom, but also a bigger message. Steven and Elyse share their struggles of parenting while “the line between helping and protecting “ isn’t always clear. Another key theme is that we parents often see ourselves as kids, still trying to figure things out, but our kids look at us as authorities. Keeping a consistent message is hard, but as long as parents are both on the same page, it is easier to manage the pushback from the children.

The set, designed by Tamara Honesty, is a perfect homage to the ‘80s with furniture and color scheme. Not much changed since the 80s, except for the KitchenAid coffee pot. Just like our parents’ house—the things that change are only the things that break.

Going into the play, I admit I was skeptical. How could the playwright and director walk the tightrope of making the show interesting and relevant? With the keen direction of Kevin Moore, the beautiful setting, and this ensemble of actors, you too will deem this “must see” theatre. If you have kids in their 20s hanging around your house—bring them, so they can see how we parents have it tough as well. Flashing back between young Alex and 30 year old Alex is a great framework to explore these differing perspectives. Sound designer Jay Brunner manages these transitions well, but occasionally the lighting could better support the time travel. A few parts of the script still need polishing (what is a restricted club and why is that bad?) but overall a great, poignant evening at the theatre.

This play continues through June 25, and is recommended. I also recommend pitching this updated version to the television networks, as the tensions between conservatives and liberals these days could really use a bit of laughs and perspective.

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