The Civilians' "You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents' Divorce

Pictured L-R: Robbie Collier Sublett, Jennifer R. Morris, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller Production Photos by: T. Charles Erickson

When you tell a story about your parents, you are in large part saying, listen: here’s how I turned out this way. This feels especially true when the stories are about divorce, one of those defining childhood traumas. So there’s something absolutely electric about actors telling their parents’ divorce stories while performing as their parents, in their parents own words, gleaned from child-parent interviews.

On one level, you’re hearing these riveting accounts of how a failed relationship both reveals and alters one’s identity. On another level, you can’t help but thinking: Man, they told this stuff to their children, who had to internalize it enough to memorize and perform it. Sometimes they talk about their sex lives. Sometimes they talk about what a burden their children were.

It’s like some mutant therapy role-play session. It’s also great theater. As much as it’s a conceptual art piece, it’s also the most engaging form of storytelling: people just looking you in the eye and talking through some intense moments from their pasts. Of course, because the subject is divorce, they’re also working hard to build persuasive cases about winners and losers.

The characters are vivid and compelling. There’s a strong, southern aristocrat, played by her son, who comes to learn that her beloved husband has been hiding some truly shocking secrets. There’s an indomitably high-status, New York liberal/socialite, played by her daughter, who appears as comfortable in her victimhood as she is in her self-avowed egocentrism. There’s a pair of ageing hippies—both played by their son—who tried experimenting with the traditional rules of marriage, and there’s a lapsed Catholic, played by her daughter, who married a Harvard intellectual to whom she was never attracted because at the time, it somehow felt like the path of least resistance.

While the topic of these characters’’ stories is heavy and the context of the performance is loaded, the play frequently manages to be hilarious. Its creator’s have done an excellent job of editing the interviews to maximize entertainment value. Plus, the shock of hearing some spicy details or cold-sounding observations come from the mouth of these character’s children, often inspires that uncomfortable laughter you experience in the best dark comedies.

In addition to being insightful and funny, “Tales From My Parents Divorce” does give one a strange feeling of voyeurism. It begs the same questions as a good memoir: to put it crudely, how could they do this to their parents? How could their parents agree? It’s not that these parents are necessarily presented in a bad light; they’re probably more often sympathetic then not—but they are certainly exposed and open to interpretation. They’re also, often telling only one side of the tale.

When, how and to what extent should family history be public entertainment? As usual, the Civilians provoke some great questions.

The Civilians’ “You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce” plays at ArtsEmerson

’s Paramount Mainstage through October 30.

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