Stephen Kearin plays well with others. One of the West Coast’s foremost improvisational theater artists and a founding member of L.A.’s all-star Impro Theatre, Kearin is best known in the Bay Area as a vital third of improv power trio 3 For All (with peers Rafe Chase and Tim Orr) as well as a founding member of storied local groups Improv Theatre and True Fiction Magazine. Nevertheless, in his new one-man show about growing up in greater Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, Kearin proves he’s also an outstanding soloist.
Inside Out—which had its world premiere last year at Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and enjoyed a triumphant, if too brief, San Francisco premiere this month at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater—has and needs precious little in terms of mise-en-scène: a rather artificial-looking “family” tree center stage, covered in green post-it leaves, serves nicely as a prompt to memories. Other than that, it’s just Kearin alone onstage with a microphone, riveting from the first moment to the last.
That opening moment sets the tone brilliantly. Kearin, slim and dapper in gray wool blends and topped by his characteristic plume of concentrated yet barely contained red hair, steps briskly out to the front of the stage and, wasting no time, launches into a physically expressive and hilarious story of routine maternal abandonment. Getting down on one knee, he conjures his chain-smoking, no-sass mother in a pivotal scene from his early childhood as she looks squarely into the eyes of her young son, who is still heaving tears after having gotten lost, briefly, in a department store. Out of sight of Stephen’s two sisters and the shop girl, Mom, like Barbara Stanwyck in some suburban noir, sends a thin peel of smoke into the boy’s face and advises him to, “toughen up.”
Those words become a leitmotif for the two acts that follow, as Kearin takes us inside the often-troubled yet defiantly boisterous walls of his family’s various suburban abodes. Whether he’s relating stories of the tempestuous, ultimately doomed marriage between his ever-industrious, never-around-much father and his flinty, fiercely witty, deeply unhappy mother, or his own adolescent adventures in the shifting landscape of his L.A. childhood, these wonderfully delivered tales add up to a study of resilience and compassion amid the fragility of supposedly solid things like love and family.
Greater Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s is a disparate place for disparate people without a clear sense of where they belong. A place like Van Nuys, for instance, is an almost childish fantasy in its match of humdrum traffic, low-budget commerce, and preternatural sky; a place where big shabby cars nose each other down grey boulevards along which streetlamps alternate incongruously with tropical palms. It’s some practical paradise—two words that don’t balance one another so much as cancel each other out.
Inside Out, for all its regular and raucous laughter, is moody and utterly transfixing in its evocation of place as well as its slow-dawning themes. Just how Kearin does this seems miraculous in retrospect, especially given the spare nature of the production—which rightly eschews the usual backdrops and snippets of recorded pop music to let Kearin, an accomplished voiceover actor as well as an extremely nimble and charismatic performer, produce all the atmosphere himself, along with any incidental sound effect that may be called for. (In a seemingly effortless display of both his physical and audio prowess, he even conjures up and handily manipulates a Hammond organ, that onetime extravagance of the middle-class den.)
Delighting and fascinating, genuinely moving, the show leaves one in a lingering state of emotional excitement and expansive feeling that is too rare in the theater these days, whether for a stripped-down monologue or an over-inflated extravaganza. If Kearin is not yet a household name for theatergoers beyond the improv scene, it’s time that situation, too, was turned inside out.
Inside Out: True Stories of an Unbelievable Family, Southside Theater, San Francisco, November 8, 2014.