“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy famously wrote at the start of Anna Karenina. And the family in Christopher Durang’s play The Marriage of Bette and Boo is without a doubt uniquely unhappy. Bette herself (Danielle Read) is hopelessly fixated on having the kind of large family that her sneering sister Joan (Julie Berghammer) takes for granted. Mother Margaret (Lauralynn Stafford) is relentlessly critical, which takes a particular toll on their neurotic younger sister, Emily (Aubree Peterson). Paul (Barry Brathovde), the palsied patriarch of this side of the family, endures most of the infighting in the silence of his paralysis.
On the other side of this holy matrimony, there’s Boo (Aaron Kimling), who shares his acid-tongued father’s (Scott Finlayson) predilection for drink. Boo’s mother, Soot (Lynn Noel), weathers her husband’s insults with suppressed rage that bubbles up in the form of an outrageous caw of laughter. Even when looking beyond the family, Father Donnally (Daniel Baumer), their regular priest, has a habit of making absurd foot-in-mouth comments.
Durang’s semi-autobiographical proxy, Matt (Kelly Hauenstein), narrates these impressionistic memories from the side. As the only child of Bette and Boo not to be stillborn, he tries to make sense of this furious merry-go-round of personalities and events through literature — specifically, the novels of Thomas Hardy, which he’s studying in college. Later he begins to wonder whether he’s observing the asylum from a cool analytical distance, or if he’s actually one of the inmates.
Read gives an exquisite performance as Bette — no easy feat, given that her character can move between tears, fury and laughter in a single scene. In their supporting roles, Noel and Finlayson are particularly well matched: his Karl comes across as a nasty piece of work; her Soot remains infuriatingly passive. Peterson, on the other hand, has a tendency to overemphasize the hypersensitivity that’s already written into her lines. Phoebe Oosterhuis’ direction brings the requisite balance to this chaotic amalgamation, ensuring that this darkly comic drama rests atop the knife-edge that separates tastelessness and tenderness.
The Marriage of Bette and Boo • $18 ($16 military, senior) • Through June 30 • Ignite! Theater • 10814 E. Broadway Ave., Spokane Valley • ignitetheater.org