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Two actors onstage for Cross Stitch Bandits

“Cross Stitch Bandits” is the Relatable and Quirky World-Premiere That Explores Family

Reviewed by Mara Guyer

I had never seen a person crawl out of a casket before. Much less in the middle of a living room — or rather, in the middle of a beautiful fake living room, onstage at the Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse. But there’s a first time for everything, and this weekend I laughed watching Otto Konrad climb in and out of the sparkly purple coffin that inspired Sanam Laila Hashemi and Steven Burneson’s new play, Cross Stitch Bandits. 

Hashemi and Burneson wrote the play together as part of Cadence Theatre’s Pipeline New Works Fellowship, under the mentorship of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. This production in Richmond, presented by Cadence Theatre and Virginia Repertory Theatre, is the work’s world premiere. Cross Stitch Bandits follows a family of four each facing their own career inflection points. Honesty is a prized family value, though it becomes evident quickly that each character is holding onto secrets they’ll be forced to reveal. When the family gathers for a long weekend to celebrate father David’s (Konrad) retirement, the resulting chaos captures the weirdness, pain, and hilarity of families that love but don’t always understand each other. 

The unconventional concept at the center of Cross Stitch Bandits is based on a piece of Burneson’s family lore that he and Hashemi described as the kind of joke you either think is funny or you really, really don’t. Regardless of how you might react to a funeral-themed retirement party in real life, the effect is hilarious when translated to the stage. The scenic design and props provide several really great visual jokes and, while a couple comedic beats might lose their effectiveness with repetition, there are several laugh out loud moments thanks to Sharon Ott’s direction and everyone’s commitment to the bit. The result is a layered and emotional family story. It’s funny and absurd, but challenging and sweet at the same time. 

Actors onstage for Cross Stitch Bandits
Cyrus Mooney, Dorothy “Dee-D.” Miller, Tatjana Shields, and Landon Nagel. Photo by Jay Paul Photography.

Scenic designer Faith Carlson has done excellent work developing a space that truly looks and feels like a home. In a post-show talkback, Burneson shared that all the crocheted materials in the play were actually created by his mother — a wonderful detail that enhances the play’s emphasis on familial relationships and building understanding through creative pursuits. Weston Corey’s lighting design is also really fun, especially in scenes that take place in and out of the house at night. I particularly enjoyed one sequence where two characters’ conversation is completely illuminated by a refrigerator light. The set also features a translucent glass front door and sidelights, enabling dramatic, anticipatory moments where the audience can see characters about to enter the house before it happens. 

Thoughtful and detailed acting choices complete the transformation from set to home. I was delighted to see David sit at the kitchen counter on one stool while using another’s footrest, since I always sit that way while chatting in the kitchen at my parents’ house. In a later scene, daughter Kaija (Tatjana Shields) does the same thing. Though Kaija and Drew are young adults who no longer live in the house, Shields and Cyrus Mooney walk up and downstairs, slouch on furniture, and open kitchen cabinets with the kind of assuredness that comes only with time and comfort. Each character’s body language communicates important information about their familiarity with the space and their connectedness to one another. 

This cast is tasked with originating Cross Stitch Bandits’ characters, and they have met the challenge. Konrad is terrific as David, in a bittersweet portrayal that suggests the things he may consider his strengths — his almost compulsive attention to detail, his doggedness — are the basis of all the conflict he’s experiencing at home and work. He constantly tidies and makes adjustments around the house. He makes progress with his children then immediately undermines it. Konrad balances these tendencies and frustrations with David’s softness and affection for his family: dynamic shifts that could feel too jarring instead feel totally believable because it’s clear that the family’s reactions are also informed by past fights. 

As Jeanne, Dee-D. Miller conveys the depth and dimension in each relationship. Her reactions are phenomenal — you really feel like she’s listening and responding, and it elevates the comedic moments along with the serious ones. Shields and Mooney adeptly display how quickly siblings can toggle between playfulness and self-consciousness, affection and defensiveness when engaging with each other and their parents. Landon Nagel rounds out the small cast as Neil, David’s longtime coworker and friend, and his powerful emotive performance is the audience’s only real insight into the world outside of the central characters’ family life. 

During Saturday’s talkback, Hashemi and Burneson explained that they wrote Cross Stitch Bandits with universality in mind. The play is designed to adapt to different formulations of the American family while still touching on universal truths and struggles. As a result, the work focuses more on interpersonal relationships than developing highly specific characters, though they are brought to life convincingly by the cast. It points to an interesting future for the play, with potentially limitless opportunities for productions and audiences to recreate and reimagine the American family and the caskets in all their living rooms.  

Cross Stitch Bandits runs through March 19, with shows Thursday through Sunday at the Gottwald Playhouse at Dominion Energy Center. The production contains some strong language, so be advised. For tickets and showtimes, go here.      

Feature photo: Dorothy “Dee-D.” Miller as Jeanne and Otto Konrad as David. [Photo by Jay Paul Photography]

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