Hounds of War marks the impressive debut of new indie theater company Wee Man Productions. The production, directed by Mark Cirnigliaro, exudes a polished professionalism that well serves Bill Holland’s ambitious script.
Hounds of War tells the story of a family trying to start over, but who are so haunted by past wounds (and present doubts) that their future is in jeopardy. They move to a new home in the remote countryside in upstate New York, but despite the change of scene, their emotional lives prove as constricted as their newfound landscape is vast. Dad Jim wants to re-connect with his family, but he battles alcoholism, a violent temper, and self-doubt instilled into him by his father, a rigorous military man. Mom Mary wants the family to have a new start, but she also wants a life of her own. Elder son Larry wants to carry on the family’s military tradition, but he’s frightened of going to serve in Afghanistan. Younger son Bobby marches to his own drum, rejecting his father’s conservatism while yearning desperately for his love, and nursing secrets that could alienate him from his father forever. Friendly neighbour Henry, who served with Jim in the army, tries to help the family adjust to their new life—but given his own emotional baggage, it’s a herculean task.
Playwright Bill Holland underscores the play’s realism with a metaphysical undercurrent—the interior demons that haunt Jim become physicalized, at least in his mind, in the form of wild dogs. As he becomes increasingly un-hinged, he fears the dogs more and more—and becomes more hound-like himself, descending into a feral madness. It’s a powerful visual metaphor—brought to life with powerful conviction by actor Christopher LaPanta.
Holland has created believable, empathetic characters—in particular, the exchanges between ex-military men Jim and Henry about their army days show a brutal side of life not often represented on stage with such offhand honesty—and established a promising set-up, but the play loses momentum as it trudges to its harrowing conclusion. Despite all the family secrets and conflicts, the tension dissipates over some overlong scenes (such as the touching, yet too long, musical interlude between Larry and Bobby, and the drawn-out final family argument). There are also some unintentionally awkward moments—Henry’s spontaneous appearances aren’t always believable (Would he just drop in so casually into the family home at three in the morning?), and it is sometimes hard to believe that Mary, despite wanting a new start for her family, would accept so many of Jim’s insults and barked orders without fighting back.
Still, this is a solid script given a quality production. The cast give polished performances. Christopher LaPanta finds the animal desperation beneath Jim’s stern exterior, Margaret Curry finds the strength beneath Mary’s beleaguered resilience. Tony Head brings warmth and charm to the role of friendly (sometimes too-friendly) neighbour Henry, while Justin Hofstad discovers a complicated mix of confidence and doubt within golden boy Larry, and Patrick Massey finds the rage and surprising humor within the role of problem son Bobby. Mark Cirnigliaro directs them into a fine ensemble performance
The designers have made ingenious use of sparse resources to create a world realized with a luxury not often found on Off-Off-Broadway budgets. In particular, set designer Bethanie Wampol Watson’s cozy yet sinister backwoods cabin stands out for its amazing detail, down to the antler chandelier. Lighting designer Jeff Carr creates a lighting plot that encompasses both the friendly glow of the cabin and the sinister red glare of Jim’s anger, while sound designer Matt Bittner’s use of rain, storm, and animal sounds helps create a sense of the backwoods. Costume designer Caity Mulkearns dresses the characters in clothes that reflect their emotional evolution, from hopeful whites and greys to grim black, while fight choreographer Joseph Pisapia arranges impressively believable conflicts within the tight playing space.
In all, Hounds of War is a promising debut for a talented new company.