‘Visiting Hours’ poses heavy drama, little depth

The cover of the program for the New Theatre’s production of “Visiting Hours” poses the question: Can parents ever escape the guilt for the sins of their children? It’s a loaded query that set the stage for an evening of heavy familial drama and razor-sharp tension. Unfortunately, the South Florida premiere of David Caudle’s 2012 play raised more questions than it knew how to answer.

Set in present day Coral Gables, “Visiting Hours” follows the lives of Beth (Madelin Marchant) and Marian (Barbara Sloan), a committed lesbian couple who have been estranged from their son Paul (Alex Alvarez) for two years. When they unexpectedly discover his girlfriend Shelly (Maria Corina Ramirez) in their garage apartment and learn that Paul has been arrested for aggravated assault, relationships are tested and truths surface that might have been better left unsaid.

Caudle’s script does not shy away from risky territory; the show opens with a scene in which the landlady, Nat (Kitt Marsh) solicits Shelly to prostitute herself in order to make money to bail out Paul. Caudle writes characters who are deeply dysfunctional and flawed, with histories of abuse, self-destructive tendencies and fiery tempers. Yet his work sometimes seems to collapse under the weight of all these issues. Outbursts and even suicidal episodes explode out of nowhere, forcing the actors to make melodramatic choices to justify these sudden blasts of emotion.

The intimate black box space of the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center’s Lab Theatre forced the audience to get up close and personal with Caudle’s highly volatile characters. This was a blessing and a curse. The proximity endowed quieter moments, such as Alvarez cradling Ramirez in his arms after an outburst, with a poignancy that would have been lost in a larger venue. It also allowed Marchant to craft a Beth who was perfectly understated and comfortably real in her behavioral tics.

However, the lack of distance made the frequent eruptions of screaming and violence a profoundly uncomfortable experience that verged on comical, without the benefit of a greater separation which could have softened the overwrought intensity.

To their credit, the New Theatre’s set, designed by Alyiece Moretto, was incredibly detailed and stood up to the intense scrutiny of audience members who were not 10 feet away from the front of the stage. Moretto thought of everything, from roof tiles on the floor to suggest the garage beneath the apartment, to cabinets and a refrigerator stocked with the food that Beth and Marian would actually have, despite not appearing in the show.

In the end, “Visiting Hours” was more confusing than it was enlightening, a potentially interesting character study that struggled under too much drama and too little depth. At the show’s conclusion, the audience was left not with a sense of catharsis, but of confusion, the giant question from the program still hanging in the air as the lights faded to black.

If you go:

“Visiting Hours”

Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 Street, Cutler Bay, Florida 33189

When: Fridays & Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. through March 2.

Cost: $26 to $31. $15 student rush tickets with ID.

For more information, call 786-573-5300 or visit new-theatre.org