2012-2013 Season

Father & Son: An Enduring Dramatic Relationship


In The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, we are given a window into a fraught father-son dynamic, that of Tom and James, whose relationship is at the heart of this play. Of course, they are far from the first paternal pairing to be at the center of a drama.


Christopher Denham & David Morse in The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. Photo: Joan Marcus.

We can go all the way back to the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles and find a father-son relationship at the center of the play. Creon and son Haemon are at a crossroads. Creon has sentenced his son’s fiancé, Antigone, to death for disobeying his law. Haemon pleads with his father to reverse his sentence. When Creon refuses, Haemon takes his own life. While their relationship is not the main plot, it highlights the major theme of the play: conflict with authority. By presenting these big themes within a small, familiar relationship, the playwright gives his audience a way into the story. Like most Greek tragedies, this is an epic tale of high emotions, but what makes it an enduring story are the relationships that generations of people have connected to.


Antigone in front of the dead Polynices (1865), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Greece.

Moving many years forward, we can find a similar example of the father-son relationship enlightening larger themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While Hamlet is traditionally considered to be a play about revenge and loyalty, at the core of the play is Hamlet’s turmoil over losing his father and his subsequent spiral into questioning his identity. When his father dies, Hamlet’s whole world is turned upside down. He feels obligated to seek revenge on his own uncle for the death of his father, but that responsibility causes him inner chaos. Even the audience in Shakespeare's time might not have understood what it was like to have a conniving uncle plotting against them for the throne of Denmark, but they would certainly understand the loss of a parent and the emotional turmoil that would cause.

All My Sons by Arthur Miller is a classic American story about a son discovering the imperfections of his father. Joe Keller, the father in All My Sons, is the “everyman.” He is the most likable character in the story, until we discover he was responsible for sending out faulty airplane parts that cost twenty-one American soldiers their lives in WWII. When son Chris discovers his father’s crime, neither father nor son can bear it.  Joe knows his son will never see him as a hero again, and Chris’s entire identity and belief system are turned upside down.  Joe and Chris’s relationship is a commentary on the disillusionment felt by the American people towards their country after WWII. The American Dream lost its purity in the eyes of Miller, and this play was his commentary on that loss. In this piece, like in Antigone, we see a larger theme of the play simplified within the father-son relationship.

Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy is about the crumbling empire of Gregor, a shady Romanian businessman who spends his final days in his illegitimate son’s Greenwich Village apartment. Unaware that he is a pawn in his father’s game, Basil idolizes the legendary tycoon. Even when his father tries to use him as a pawn for his own gain Basil is forgiving. Again we find father and son at the center of an intense story. Gregor’s dysfunctional relationship with his son allows us to truly understand how deeply Gregor’s self-loathing lies.

Frank Langella and Adam Driver in Roundabout's 2011 production of Man and Boy. Photo: Joan Marcus.

While there are vast differences between Greek tragedies and modern family dramas, we still find the same dynamics at the heart of the plays. The relationship between father and son is not a problem to be solved. It’s a dynamic all its own that will continue to be explored anew in each generation through their own lens.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 31 through August 25. For more information and tickets, visit our website.

This article is from our Education at Roundabout Upstage Playgoer Guide.

Related Categories:
Education @ Roundabout, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin

No Comments

A Conversation with Actor, David Morse


Before rehearsals began for The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with actor David Morse about his title role.


Ted Sod: Will you tell us a bit about yourself?

David Morse: I was born in Massachusetts in a town called Beverly. We lived in a few towns north of Boston: Essex, Hamilton, Danvers. I, like a lot of fortunate kids, had two teachers who were particularly keen about whatever was inside of me that was drawn to acting. They encouraged and nourished it. In the eighth grade there was a teacher named Mrs. Baker. We would read stories aloud in class. I was terrified that I would get picked to read something but still hoping like crazy that I would be. I just loved it. I loved reading different characters. Then when I got to high school there was Mrs. Ferrini who had a great influence on me.


TS: Did you go on to further studies like college or graduate school?

DM: I went right from high school into Boston Repertory Theatre. I hadn’t even graduated from high school and I was asked to be a member of the company. It was kind of intimidating at first. They were all older and out of college. I became one of the founding members. I was there for six years before I went to New York. In New York, I studied with Bill Esper. He was one of Sandy Meisner’s protégés and a great teacher.


TS: Was there something about the role of Tom that appealed to you? And why this particular play?

DM: Before The Seafarer, the last play I did was How I Learned to Drive. It was really so hard on my family because I was away from them in New York for so long. I just really did not feel comfortable doing another play until the kids were older. After I did The Seafarer, I was asked to do other things in New York but it was still too soon. Now my kids have gone to college. And I’d been acting in Treme for HBO so it’d been hard to do any plays. We had just finished the last season of Treme and this play was given to me to read. I just love the way Steven Levenson has written the play. It is an appealing read. It’s deceptively simple.  It’s filled with what makes a good play: humor and drama. And it has a character that, for me personally and I think everybody, is going to be a challenge to live with onstage.


TS: I, too, think the play is beautifully structured and your character is fascinating. How do you approach a role like this? Do you have to do research?

DM: I’ve done a number of roles where I’ve had to do research for characters who spent time in prison. And I volunteered for quite a few years in a prison. I didn’t really feel like I needed to research that aspect of Tom’s character. And the world that he was part of as a lawyer is fairly familiar. I certainly have friends who are lawyers. The mystery, not just about Tom, but so many people in our society right now, is how they go down the road of making choices that are illegal and that hurt other people but that they believe are okay. They believe it’s legitimate and they have a right to make those decisions. I personally don’t get it. I don’t get how people with so much money and so much power can choose to do things that are going to hurt people on such a big scale when they already have so much. Why do people who have so much have to try and get more at the expense of other people? That’s part of my interest in playing this role; finding that out for myself. The play is about finding the answers to that paradox. It’s a challenge on a very human and relatable level.


TS: I am intrigued by the relationship between Tom and James. Father-son relationships have taken center stage quite a bit. What do you make of it?

DM: It’s close to home, which is another reason that I’m interested in playing Tom. Over the course of my career, my relationship with my father has come up a lot. And in this play it very much does. I don’t need to go into that, but I’ll say it really pulls on my personal experiences.


TS: That must be both exciting and frightening at the same time. What about the relationship with Karen, his ex-wife? She seems so done with him.

DM:  Tom talks a little bit about what their relationship was early on. It seems to me that they both loved it. She must have been in love with him. They were together for quite a while before all of that stuff happened.  They did eventually get a divorce but something was going on to keep them together. There had to be love and affection. I’m also thinking about the daughter who won’t talk to me. She isn’t in the play, but it will be fun to get to know what that relationship is all about.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 31 through August 25. For more information and tickets, visit our website.

This interview is from our Education at Roundabout Upstage Playgoer Guide.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin


A Conversation with Actor, Christopher Denham


Before rehearsals began, actor Christopher Denham spoke with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about his role of James in The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.


Ted Sod: Please tell us a bit about yourself. 

Christopher Denham: I was born on the southside of Chicago. Educated down at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. A great theater training program under Henson Keys and Daniel Sullivan. Amazing teachers and an amazing theater complex in the middle of the cornfields. Spent my formative years worshipping at the Steppenwolf altar. Steppenwolf represented a certain kind of acting from a certain kind of city. A little rough around the edges. A little unpolished. Blue collar actors without perfect diction or posture. But a vital sense of authenticity. All my heroes are from Chicago: Terry Kinney, Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Denis O'Hare. That was the kind of actor I wanted (and want) to be. When I finally was able to work at Steppenwolf, it was the ultimate stamp of approval.


TS: Why did you choose to do this play and this role?

CD: I had been working primarily in film and television for the past three years. I was dying to dive back into theater. I was reading lots of plays, but Steven's writing made a lasting impression on me. He managed somehow to craft characters you care about, despite their glaring flaws. The story he was telling wasn't just topical. It's about something bigger than derivatives trading. It's about redemption. Who gets to decide who gets a second chance? Steven's writing is deeply human and, incidentally, deeply funny. Also, David Morse was on board and I knew I could learn a lot from him. Every actor I've ever met has nothing but the highest respect for David's work. He brings a profound sense of reality to every role. I've also been a big fan of Scott Ellis for a long time. He has directed so many of my favorite productions. I knew he could somehow get something good out of me.


TS: I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t started yet,  but can you share some of your preliminary thoughts about James with us?

CD: Steven has written a complicated, conflicted young man. In many ways, James has had the wind knocked out of him. Ten years ago, he had a very clear idea of what his life would be. And then his life was derailed. He lost his confidence. The trajectory of the play, I think, is James crawling out of this black hole. Learning how to walk again. How to stop this cycle of self-victimization and self-pity and kickstart his life.


TS: What do you think the play is about?

CD: A bad play, written by a bad writer, would be about James forgiving Tom. That would be obvious. This play isn't about that. It's about something more complicated, more insidious. In my opinion, Steven is essentially telling us that no one really knows anyone. We think we know our loved ones, our family members. We don't. Everyone has hidden depths. Things they don't reveal. Things they lie about, either to you or to themselves. When they arrest a serial killer,  the neighbors never say: "yeah, he was a psychopath." The neighbors always say: "he was the nicest man. I had no idea he was capable of this crime." That's what this play is about.


TS: Can you talk about the relationship between James and his father, Tom?

CD: Like any father/son relationship, there are several iterations of the relationship. At one time, for a long time, they were very close. That's what makes the fall from grace so tragic. They had so far to fall. For James, it is almost inconceivable that his Dad committed these crimes. In many scenes, he almost has to remind himself that Tom is a master manipulator. He is, as James says, "incapable of telling the truth." Tom has to be seen through the prism of his misdeeds.


TS: What do you feel is happening between James and Katie?

CD: When it comes to Katie, James has found an intelligent, funny person who has rekindled something inside him. James has kind of thrown in the towel in many regards. He's taken himself out of the game. Katie has been through a difficult relationship. They have that vulnerability as a common denominator. Damaged goods.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 31 through August 25. For more information and tickets, visit our website.

This interview is from our Education at Roundabout Upstage Playgoer Guide.


Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin