Kenny and Edith aren’t orphans, but they might as well be. The young Filipino American siblings at the center of A. Rey Pamatmat’s play Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them are raising themselves on a remote farm somewhere in Middle America in the 1990s. Their mother is dead, but their father’s still alive; he’s just not around. He sends them money as if he were far away, but he’s actually not so far. He just never comes home. He’s always either at work or staying over at his girlfriend’s place, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.
Edith kicks off Crowded Fire Theater’s 18th season, which is a transitional year for the San Francisco company. Erstwhile artistic director Marissa Wolf left in December to take a job as director of new works at Kansas City Rep. Her newly named successor, Mina Morita, takes over in April, the same month she directs the second show of Crowded Fire’s season (Idris Goodwin’s Blackademics).
Desdemona Chiang, who previously directed The Hundred Flowers Project and Exit, Pursued by a Bear for the company, gives the play a brisk staging, with some fun musical tidbits in Madeline Oldham’s sound design (such as George Michael’s “Faith” and the song from the obscure old Disney flick The Gnome-Mobile).
The title is a line from the play, and it’s also true: Edith can shoot things and hit them. The 12-year-old girl is always marching around with a rifle, or occasionally a bow and arrow, often clutching her oversize stuffed frog at the same time. Edith doesn’t hunt to feed the family or anything like that. She’s just the self-appointed protector, play-acting that she’s on very important and dangerous missions. She probably shouldn’t be shooting things at all, nor should she sit high on the rafters of Deanna L. Zibello’s hybrid barn/living room set, but nobody’s around to tell her not to. Her 16-year-old brother, Kenny, is too busy trying budget to make the money last, maintain good grades in school and spend as much time as possible with his boyfriend.
Although the story is ostensibly about the siblings’ independence in their abandonment, the heart of the play is the budding romance between Kenny and his schoolmate Benji, the only other sophomore in pre-calculus class. It’s the first sexual relationship for both of them, and the mixture of boyish teasing, horniness and emotional shyness Wes Gabrillo’s stoic Kenny and Maro Guevara’s nebbishy Benji display with each other is awfully endearing. They’re refreshingly unconflicted about their feelings for each other, although it seems to be uncharted territory. Coming from a homophobic family, Benji takes comfort in the clinical, nonjudgmental words for homosexual sex that he finds in the dictionary.
While their relationship is sweet and a lot of fun to watch, it also comes to life more than other subplots because it’s so much more believable than the brother-sister dynamic. Nicole Javier’s Edith is a fun and likeable character, between her elaborate flights of fantasy and her spunky autonomy, but an unconvincing one. Like the adults that we only see once as looming shadows, Edith is basically a plot device. Just as Edith plays at being a space alien, when she has an emotional crisis it feels like she’s playing at that, too. It doesn’t help that the few things we know about her—that she fancies herself the armed protector of the house and that she embodies wild and stubborn independence—seem to be all she talks about.
The other characters also could be reduced to a couple of characteristics that we hear about repeatedly. Aside from his bookish smarts and youthful libido, Benji is as dependent on his parents as the other two are self-sufficient. Not only doesn’t he know how to cook; he doesn’t even choose his own clothes. Getting a glass of milk for himself instead of asking for one is a big step for him. Kenny’s main distinguishing feature is how he has to keep things under control for everyone else. Edith accuses him of robot-like problem solving, as automatic as the way he’s learned to solve a Rubik’s Cube, but that charge doesn’t ring true. He clearly feels things deeply; it’s just that he’s had to be cautious to protect the family, which could be torn apart if word got out that they’d been left to their own devices. The difference is that the boys talk about a wider range of subjects than Edith does and feel slightly more connected to the world, even if it’s a small and insular world.
First produced in 2011 in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere in Kentucky, Georgia, Florida and Minnesota, Pamatmat’s play is repetitive and overlong at two and a half hours. There’s probably 90 minutes’ worth of content there. That’s mostly because its overarching themes of self-sufficiency versus dependence, parental interference and abandonment, are at the same time belabored and underdeveloped. That is, it’s something that’s talked about a lot, but the way it plays into the story seems only roughly sketched out. It’s mostly in the giddiness of young love that the story really springs to life, but that part is delightful.
Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them runs through March 21, 2015 at Thick House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit crowdedfire.org.