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Michael O’BrienMarch 01, 2024
Jack Serio, director of "The Animal Kingdom." (Photo by Amelio Madrid)

As Sam, the central character of playwright Ruby Thomas’s “The Animal Kingdom,” expresses several times during the play, animals and human beings have an astonishing number of similarities, especially when it comes to family dynamics.

Sam (played by Uly Schlesinger), a hopeful zoologist, notes how bonobo families are led by female alphas, an occurrence that has become more common among 21st-century human families. He explains how swifts will often force their babies to leave the nest early, even if they’re not quite ready to fly—a phenomenon that many parents are surely familiar with.

Sam also observes some of the grimmer commonalities between animals and humans: “Animals self-harm. There’s been instances with orcas where they…” Sam begins before his therapist Daniel (Calvin Leon Smith) suggests he not continue.

“The Animal Kingdom” falls into the category of a difficult but necessary watch that inspires us to think more critically about our mental health and relationships.

The plot of “The Animal Kingdom,” which recently closed a four-week run in New York City’s Connelly Theater Upstairs, revolves around six family therapy sessions held at a clinic between Sam and his divorced parents Rita (Tasha Lawrence) and Tim (David Cromer) and sister Sofia (Lily McInerny) shortly after Sam has survived a suicide attempt.

The staging of “The Animal Kingdom” is simple: five chairs in a circle accompanied by a small table with tissues and a water bottle. Rather than relying on a complex set design that requires multiple scene changes, Thomas’s play puts the focus squarely on Sam’s family and their therapist as they try to parse out what could have driven Sam to try to take his own life.

Jack Serio, the play’s 27-year-old director and a Boston native, has ambitious productions such as Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” already under his belt. Serio, a graduate of Boston College High School, took some time to speak with America before the end of the run for his newest play “On Set with Theda Bara” about “The Animal Kingdom."

He called the simple set design “a double-edged sword,” because it was the element of the play he was “most nervous about.” 

By the same token, Serio also explained how it was one of the parts of the play that excited him because he “felt really committed to preserving a certain kind of naturalism and reality in the piece.”

Thomas’s masterful scriptwriting and Serio’s direction allow each character to become vulnerable enough to share a truth about their relationship with the rest of the family that they may have never opened up about before.

Tim, who initially appears as a stereotypically cold, detached father, reveals that he finds himself silent in situations that typically require dialogue to remedy them, because his own father acted in this way. It takes a lot of courage and self-awareness to admit to your son that you have been a “bad father,” but Tim does just that.

“Never cried in front of anyone…Used to do it on my own. Into my pillow,” Tim tells Sam and Daniel about his inability to express emotion to his own father.

Tim’s stifled cry for help as an adolescent, akin to an animal in a pack not wanting to appear as the weak link, has finally been verbalized. His inability to communicate in the past may have damaged his relationship with his son, but by finally coming to grips with his past, it seems that there is some hope that Tim can be a better father to Sam in the future.

Speaking about Tim’s character, Serio said “Just because Tim speaks infrequently in the play, it doesn’t mean that he is not a central presence."

Conversely, Sam’s mother, Rita, can’t stop talking.

Whenever Sam comes close to revealing an intimate detail about his life, whether it be about his sexuality or his mental health, he is interrupted by his mother’s rambling interjections. But like Tim, Rita certainly has baggage. As the audience comes to learn, talking is a coping mechanism for Rita to distract herself from past family trauma. 

She finally finds the words to explain to Sam and Sofia that her father was severely depressed and that she has been burying guilt that Sam may have inherited this familial trait.

“What could I say? ‘Oh, by the way, darling, sometimes your granddad didn’t get out of bed in the morning, did you know?’” Rita emotionally tells Sam. 

Serio’s direction hints at a pessimism that the family’s trajectory is going to change anytime soon; “I don’t think Rita is going to stop talking, I don’t think Tim is all of a sudden going to start talking a lot more,” he told America.

However, he conceded that the six therapy sessions are “able to move the family forward one inch, and that they are able to just take the smallest step.”

Perhaps the most complex relationship in the play is between Sam and Sofia. While they seem to have the healthiest and happiest dynamic in the family, there is much tumult below the surface. As almost any brother-sister duo can attest, the reality of one sibling receiving more attention over some time, whether for good reasons or bad, will naturally often make the other feel neglected.

Sofia tells Sam that when he texted her a preemptive suicide note, his words riddled her with intense anxiety and fear.

While Sofia initially gives her full support for Sam’s path to recovery, she is no longer able to hold in her feelings toward the end of the play: “I hate you. You are so insanely selfish. Did you stop for a single second to think how getting that text would make me feel?” At those biting words, one could hear a pin drop in the theater.

Sofia and Sam’s relationship feels the most unresolved of all the dynamics in the play; speaking about their bond, Serio said, “I think that they are probably the two people in the family that did communicate the best, yet inside of that relationship was the fact that Sofia has felt unattended to.” He continued, “I think that is often very true in families where one child or one sibling is suffering a great deal. The other sibling learns to make do, and it’s a survival mechanism.”

Serio credits BC High with helping him develop "a kind of artistic interrogation” that sparked a “certain restlessness as it relates to easy answers.”

Serio’s mention of Sofia’s “survival mechanism” is a callback to the play’s title and the fact that every member of the family displays animalistic traits. But more than anyone, due to his extreme behavior and his deep love of animals, Sam remains the focal point of the production.

While discussing the central metaphor of Sam being a “caged” swift, his favorite bird, Serio said: “I think at a certain level, Ruby is interested in the very rudimentary sense of that metaphor, or how we are observing a base level animal.” He went on to say, “We’re able to look at something that is suffering, not exclusively with empathy, but with awe; I think that’s what we’re after with the very end of the play, and that’s where I think the bird analogy feels like it holds the most water for me.”

Serio has also not forgotten about his background in Jesuit education as a graduate of Boston College High School. Serio recalls having a “tremendous teacher” at B.C. High, Adrian Hernandez, the head of the school’s drama department, who Serio referred to as a “deeply influential” figure in his career.

“I ended up running a theater company out of my high school’s auditorium for a short period of time, and they were very accommodating of that,” he said.

Beyond what goes into producing drama in high school, Serio credits B.C. High with helping him develop the trait of a “questioning insistence and a kind of artistic interrogation” that sparked a “certain restlessness as it relates to easy answers.”

“I have an insistence on multiple truths, which feels particularly present in something like ‘The Animal Kingdom,’” he continued.

“The Animal Kingdom” pushes Sam’s family to both support their brother and son’s recovery and wrestle with the emotions that the event sparked; it forces Sam to grasp how his actions may have deep effects on others; and it asks the audience what more they can do for their own family.

Thanks to Serio’s direction and Thomas’s script, “The Animal Kingdom” falls into the category of a difficult but necessary watch (its script is also worth a read) and the questions we are left with inspire us to think more critically about our mental health and relationships.

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