A lot of attention has been heaped (justly) on Sherry Jo Ward’s solo show Stiff, but another haunting one-man performance at the Festival of Independent Theatres deserves just as much praise. Zach Leyva is heartbreaking in Tommy Cain, a new play written and directed by Van Quattro.
For 50 grueling minutes, Leyva sits (with occasional strolls) in the center of a stage illuminated by a harsh light casting a shadow of prison bars. His Tommy is in juvie, waiting for his aunt to come pick him up, because even though his stint is over, a minor cannot check himself out. It’s getting late in the day, and Tommy — a nice, average 17-year-old making his way as the 1960s draw to a close — doesn’t want to stay another night in lock-up. Tommy’s not a tough kid, but he’s had a tough life. Sweetly natured but not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he’s made some bad decisions… the kind all teenagers make, but the effects of which are exacerbated when you consider his home life. Tommy’s mom isn’t around anymore (in due course, we find out why) and his father is something of a monster: Physically and emotionally abusive, he has made Tommy’s life a living hell as only failed, sad men in the mid-century could have, with heartless attacks on his manhood… his personhood. Tommy confesses these travesties with the sympathetic hesitation of a beaten dog — he’s trying to normalize the abuse (to the audience, to himself), which only magnifies its horror.
The play is a marvel in its paradoxically rangy precision: The monologue, by nature, is discursive and broad, with many details, but that only enhances the verisimilitude of Leyva’s goofy teen angst; all the elements eventually come back together, and we feel rapt up in this portrait of a boy who is fascinating and deserving of our empathy not because he is special, but because he is not. It’s a wrenching call for empathy, brilliantly performed.
Performs at FIT July 28 at 8 p.m., July 29 at 2 p.m., July 30 at 5 p.m. and Aug. 5 at 5 p.m.