The relationship between parent and child, no matter the age, is a complex and fascinating bond that will never grow old in the world of storytelling. And in playwright Josh Tobiessen’s world-premiere play Stinkers, a heartfelt comedy that’s now at the Jungle Theater through August 18, the struggles and complexities of parenting take center stage.
While his wife is at a work conference away from the characters’ home state of Minnesota, stay-at-home dad Brad—still unemployed after several years—looks over the kids. To his surprise, his mother, Joyce, released early from prison, appears at his front door planning to stay with him while she gets back on her feet. Accompanying her is a friend from prison, Lilith, who appears set on receiving payment for her services to Joyce in jail.
Brad, meanwhile, has to juggle the demands of looking after two toddlers. After seeing the pickup truck that Brad has handmade for his kids, named “Hiccup the Pickup Truck,” Joyce builds a plan to sell more of these trucks at local farmers’ markets. Eventually, it becomes clear that she has other motives than to help her son earn money for his family. That leads to the climax of the show, where Brad faces the truth about his relationship with his mother.
In an open-concept living room/kitchen area, the set design by Chelsea M. Warren introduces us to a well-lived-in home, with toys sprawled on the floor, piles of little shoes, and a diaper table. In his program notes, Tobiessen makes it clear that it was important to him to have the relationship between parent and toddler physically present. With that in mind, he brings in the idea of puppets, where Warren also serves as designer of puppetry.
There are no child actors. Instead, realistically painted, life-size puppets of the toddlers—handled by actors Reed Sigmund (who garnered praise as the Grinch at the Children’s Theatre Company last year) and Jungle favorite Megan M. Burns—bring life to this chaotic world of child-parent dynamics in a hysterical and relatable way. In every scene he appears in, Sigmund steals the spotlight with his boisterous and obnoxiously loud character voice, blurting out every possible thought he has.
For the first third of the 90-minute play, John Catron, playing the central role of Brad, conveys the mostly humorous side of single parenting with honesty, like teaching his son the lesson of what happens when he throws a cookie across the kitchen. Catron is able to compensate for issues with the script, specifically in relation to his single and also-unemployed friend Calvin, played by Nate Cheeseman. Just like his character, the writing of Calvin doesn’t seem to go anywhere, or have any true motivation other than to increase the tension in the room with his obnoxious comments (asking for a beer while Brad changes a diaper), begging the question of why he’s needed to forward the plot. And although Brad has the occasional funny one-liner, the writing doesn’t allow for the depths Catron is capable of, leading the audience to patiently wait for the meat of the play.
All the action seems to lead to Joyce, who was written specifically for local acting luminary Sally Wingert. She becomes the not-so-loving “Mimi,” as she orders the kids to call her. But, while portrayed by a powerhouse, the character of Joyce herself feels like just a device for snappy dialogue, grounded only by the toddlers who pull out her maternal instincts. This similarly is seen with the smaller character of Lilith, played by George Keller, who pulls an axe on Joyce in Lilith’s first scene but somehow turns her personality around by the end of the play with not much explanation.
Still, while each character does have flaws, Tobiessen writes from true experience, about relationships he is familiar with. As motives eventually surface, relationships are tested, and Brad discovers that sometimes the ones who push us to the brink of insanity can also be the ones who reel us back in.
The script manages to shine in hilarious and heartfelt moments, and direction by Sarah Rasmussen pushes the play in the live sitcom direction. This puts it fully into the category of comedy, which also means those heartfelt moments weren’t able to sink in as much as they maybe could have.
Stinkers is an enjoyable experience, though, filled with relatable moments, from sibling squabbles to helicopter parenting. It just feels a little unsure of what it truly wants to be as a piece of theater.
2951 Lyndale Ave S., Minneapolis
When: Through August 18