Words fly from her mouth like fireworks, rapid-fire bursts of thoughts and notions, some complete, some not, but all intense and vivid in their color, flash-flash-flash, pop-pop-pop, pink-pink-pink. This girl clutching the Hello Kitty notebook – could she even be in high school? – has so much energy. She’s the first character to speak in Theatre Synesthesia’s production of The Fault, addressing us directly, and the way that Chelsea Rhea Andersen amps her up and gets her vibrating grabs our attention immediately and pulls us toward her character, Star. But then she pulls out a lighter and fires up a small glass pipe of meth, and we pull back. Once it’s clear what fuels Star’s mile-a-minute chatter, once she complains of her heart racing, we glimpse a crack in her, like those fractures in the Earth’s crust that, subjected to certain stresses, can cause quakes that shake everything around it to pieces.
If Star were the only character in The Fault who has such a crack inside, this drama by Austin playwright Katie Bender would be hard enough. But when we’re introduced to Star’s two sisters and her mother and father, what becomes evident is that every one of them has a crack inside, which makes it five times as hard. It’s a fault line running through the entire family that could be this close to the Big One. For too long, their life was unsettled: too little money, repeated evictions, constantly moving, always on the road. Though they’ve taken a house in Northern California, all the rootlessness has done its damage. Eldest daughter Angie is, like Star, caught in the grip of addiction and was thrown out of the house for stealing to feed her habit. Dad Bill doesn’t want her back, but then he doesn’t want to be in the house either. Mom Sarah, tired of the itinerant life, is making a last stand here, fighting to fix the place up though they have no money to; they’re so strapped for cash they have to make do with chili for dinner every night, a situation middle daughter Jane is so fed up with, she complains about it openly and leaves the table without eating.
Addictions. Evictions. Financial insecurity. Food insecurity. Medical debt. College debt. The strains on this family are those on families all across this country now, which makes the play resonate in the national moment as well as a personal one. They’re the American families of Alissa Quart’s Squeezed, Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: what should be middle-class families pressed down into poverty, broke and broken.
To Bender’s credit, she shows the degree to which these family members want to support one another, to make this life work. But the pressure and friction work against them. Bridget Farias Gates’ Sarah speaks of wanting to makes a go of the house that’s consistently described in ramshackle terms, but the look on her face signals that she knows it will never happen. Jason Graf’s Bill, meanwhile, already feels too tied down by this place; when prodigal Angie (Brittany Flurry, showing the character’s effort to do the right thing) brings a new pet home, the image of a rat in a cage connects right to her dad, and the weariness Graf projects adds to the sense of Bill having put up with this all he can.
The one person who seems to have a real way out and up is Jane, a high school senior who manages to get accepted into UCLA. But when the news is greeted not with congratulations but with concerns about the financial burden college will cause, her people-pleasing middle-child instincts kick in and she decides not to go. (Rosa Armendariz keenly conveys Jane’s smarts, impatience, and feelings of defeat.) It takes another family member’s intervention to get Jane to leave home and take this shot at a future.
In a family with so many stress fractures, so many places where one good jolt could take everything down, it may be too much to expect every person to change her or his relationship to everyone else. Perhaps only the small alliances, those between two sisters or a child and a parent, can relieve the pressure and hold the family together. It’s in the grace seen in another’s eyes that you can accept the fault in you isn’t all your fault.