abandon at theatre exile

A young man, alone on the streets is cold and hungry. He’s been tossed out of his home by his brother and tries seeks refuge by breaking into an elderly woman’s home. Joshua is lonely, he is scared, he has been abandoned.

            James Ijames’ newest play, “Abandon,” is making its world premiere at Theatre Exile. This complex play, which seems straight-forward at first, is actually many stories. The woman in the home broken into is dealing with her own guilt for abandoning her son some years before. Though the son, Gabriel (Brenson Thomas), is with her on stage and even provides occasional comic relief, we soon realize that he is not actually there- he is just a ghost of himself. He has died. Did she kill him?

The play opens with Louella, in the kitchen, preparing a shopping list. She talks with her son about what she is getting. They talk about the soap operas she’s watched. We have no idea yet, that he is not really present. She is trying to figure out how to atone for the injustice she had done to him.

Melanye Finister does an incredible job in portraying Luella, the old woman, a most complex person. On the one hand, she is intensely religious. On the other, she smokes weed and even gives some to Joshua at one point after she gets to know him.

But there is a mystery on the other half of the stage. It is from that darker side that Joshua (Jared Chichester) is beaten, then tossed out by his brother Chris (Carlo Campbell), who remains sprawled out in a drunken stupor for much of the play.

            Luella’s son, Gabriel, is flamboyantly gay. He is bold. He paid a price for not hiding his sexuality from his mother. Returning as a ghost, it is no longer an issue as he interjects his thoughts when they are alone as well as when she is with Joshua.

            In a way, Joshua is the core of the play. He is a lost soul, but he is gentle and kind despite his difficult life. Most of all, he is timid. He grew up in a home where he got no attention and didn’t know the date of his birth. Will he ever get the strength he needs to survive?

            Just as Luella couldn’t deal with her son’s homosexuality, Chris had the same issue with his brother, who he discovered having sex with another man. Chris is a brutal man who tyrannizes Joshua. These are parallel stories on a kind of parallel stage, with radically different outcomes.

Joshua is sheltered by Luella, though she is prepared to use a baseball bat at first to fight him if necessary. But he is not a threat to her, and they connect on many levels.

It is the one-dimensional brutishness of Chris that doesn’t measure up to the complexity of the themes. I felt it was the weakest part of the play.  Perhaps it was just me, rooting for the connection between Chris and Joshua.

Still, the 85 minute play was riveting as Director Brett Ashley Robinson brings to life Ijames’s  fine play as it explores the depths of loneliness, acceptance, and redemption with four outstanding performances.

“Abandon” by James Ijames at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St., Philadelphia, PA 19147, 215-218-4022,  boxoffice@theatreexile.org   Thru May 21, 2023

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