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Burg Review: Playwright Paul Hood bares his painful youth in Narcisse’s raw family drama, “Kill Keller”

Brave is the writer who rips open his painful life story to expose all the scars, to re-open all the old wounds.

Local playwright Paul Hood shares his own R-rated teenage years with Narcisse Theatre audiences in “Kill Keller,” his graphic memoir of growing up in Allison Hill in the 1990s with his abusive stepfather Keller (Aaron Bomar).

H*MAC’s snug, basement-level performance space offers the perfect setting for the play, as audiences symbolically enter Hood’s cramped childhood home, complete with decades-old salvaged furniture, a leather whoopin’ strap hanging on the wall, and a velvet Jesus portrait.

Although the vibrant colors of the huge portrait occupy a lot of wall space, Keller’s constant rants and harsh demonstrations of control reflect his rejection of any power higher than himself. Keller humiliates, manipulates, criticizes and beats his stepsons Naudain (Isaiah Brown) and Maclay (Stiles Everett) over their every action and non-action. This sets up a family dynamic in which the boys can’t win. And they weren’t meant to.

Keller is unlikeable in every way, leaving the audience wondering if there is redemption for him. Keller’s only hope for mustering any sort of sympathy is his vulnerability from poor health, and if you have a soft spot for caustic people who suffer from addiction.

Hood’s life story is told through everyday family life situations that are purposefully repetitive, exposing damaged relationships between all the family members. I lost count of the number of times Keller sent Naudain to the store to buy cigarettes, how many times Mom (Erika Eberly) told Naudain to wash the dishes while his older brother Maclay sat on the couch, how many times Mom prioritized her need for affection over her sons’ safety. A silent character is the boys’ biological father, a military man who abandoned the family and whose toxic presence is frequently mentioned.

The turning point in the story comes when Maclay joins the Marines, and Keller’s health problems escalate. This shifts the underlying forces between all the characters, including Reverend Niel (James Mitchell) whose presence only seems to amplify the brokenness. Every scene is weighty with fight-or-flight decisions.

The actors’ body language and repellent reactions toward each other reveal a blended family unsuccessful in bonding together, tromping through metaphorical eggshells all over the stage floor, with any love they might feel shown in a selfish or guarded way. The play is disturbing all the way through to its unsettling end.

Director FL Henley said of Narcisse plays, “No happy endings. And sometimes no endings. We want you to leave with uncomfortable questions. We don’t want to put a bow on it for you.”

Henley assured the audience that, in real life, actor Bomar is one of the nicest people we could ever meet, and he really wanted to play a baddie. Bomar played his role so well that I will probably cross to the other side of the street if I see him around town.

Hood, who felt afraid at first to put something so emotionally raw into the universe, experienced catharsis in writing the play. He said, “I needed to work through stuff that happened with my stepfather. Writing helped me move past the trauma. Even if I almost gave up on the play, even if we almost never performed it, writing it was my therapy.”

I had the privilege of sitting next to Hood during Act I of the play. In way too many scenes, I felt like bending his 6-foot-plus frame down and resting his bald head on my heart. I wanted to re-mother him properly–to hug his inner child hard, to build living room forts with him, and to give him a dog he could keep.

During the final round of applause, I felt my entire body unclench, and I started to fully breathe again. I didn’t realize how tense the atmosphere felt until that moment.

You will want to stay for the talkback after the show. That will give you the opportunity to find some necessary comic relief in the loving and respectful interplay between the actors, to hear their individual and collective journeys (one of which was a significant death in the family that unfortunately delayed the play’s premiere this past November), and to discover the supportive family that is Narcisse Theatre.

“Kill Keller” runs Jan. 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 7 p.m., and Jan. 16, 23, and 30 at 2 p.m. in the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (H*MAC). Find more information at http://www.narcissetheatre.org/ and on Facebook.

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