I'M NOT PROUD TO ADMIT THIS, but I once bet that an untapped keg would float in a hotel pool. When sitting through Chris Harder's Fishing for My Father, a one-man play tackling father-son relationships and the great outdoors, I was reminded of that bet. Of course, the keg sank. Mr. Harder's conceit—to delve into father-son relationships without referencing personal experiences or getting another actor on stage—had about as much chance of success.
Fishing for my Father takes its audience on a surreal fishing trip. At its onset, Harder expressively and wordlessly sorts through his sparse campsite, like a modern-day Harpo Marx. Upon opening his mouth, Harder transforms into a gruff uncle, awkwardly bonding with his nephew; they're camping along with his nephew's two dads. Through Harder's blunt monologues and one-sided conversations, we learn that he accepts his gay brother at arm's-distance, but can't relate to his boyfriend, a great interior decorator. (Can I please get a restraining order on this stereotype?)
When Harder plays the gleeful clown, a persona he revisits often, he's playful and even funny; he makes a clever little shadow-puppet show and pulls a harpoon from a charmed tackle box. But when Harder exits the realm of visceral communication, the glee goes with him.
As the uncle, Harder's paternal inklings toward his nephew emerge cautiously, but Harder's clumsy exposition fails to build on their relationship. The "two" hold their rods and eat beef jerky; it's both mundane and unrealistic.
The only authentic family histories here are piped in through the speakers. Harder won a Regional Arts and Culture Commission grant to document Northwesterners' tales of "fishing and family and fatherhood," and peppers the play with excerpts. Some are sweet, but others too much so; their truncated anecdotes could be the voice-overs to wistful Chevrolet commercials. On the other hand, the rest of Harper's original soundtrack successfully evokes the sparse calm of the woods. The set's centerpiece, a giant fish dressed in collage, provides a welcome focal point for wandering eyes.
It's difficult to fault Harder's acting when he served himself such an impossible task. Clearly, he's stocked with fond wilderness memories; I just wish he had chosen to share some of them.