Unraveling – a review of ” The Animal Kingdom”

By Michael Buzzelli

A fractured family is forced to reconcile a myriad of issues in “The Animal Kingdom” by Ruby Thomas.

In an unnamed treatment facility, Sam (Greyson Taylor) meets with his therapist Daniel (Juan Rivera Lebron) prepping him for the inevitable, a group session with his mother (Daina Michelle Griffith), his father Tim (Darren Eliker) and his sister, Sofia (Alexandra Casey).

The five gather in a star-shaped circle of chairs, five points of light struggling in the darkness. Think of it as an Escape Room, but instead of puzzles and clues the only way out is through revealing the truest version of self.

Thomas lulls us into a false sense of complacency with some witty dialogue and then pounces on us with pathos.

The family therapy session gets complicated in “Animal Kingdom.”

The key descriptive word for this play is “intense.”

The intimate space is filled with intimate emotions, heightening every move and gesture. The upheavals of emotion are powerful, shocking. The pregnant pauses are disconcerting. When a droll remark, a witty anecdote or a funny personality trait arises, the laughter erupts. An escape valve letting out the pressure.

Director Patrick Jordan is also listed as the set designer, created a claustrophobic space for his actors, but gives them just enough room to move.

The acting is superb. “The Animal Kingdom” is a lesson in the craft. . The dialogue feels fresh and exciting as if the actors are saying the words for the first time. Every actor feels authentic and in-the-moment.

Taylor is exquisite as the young adult struggling with his psychological issues. He projects emotions with every withering look, heavy sigh,  and controlled gesture. His best moment comes when Sofia shares her perspective on his monumental decision.

In a tense moment, Griffith makes asking for a glass of water hilarious. She is divine as Rita, the mile-a-minute talkative mom who more than makes up for her non-verbal ex-husband, Tim.

Even when appearing disengaged, Eliker incites tension.  Tim is more nuanced, and Eliker plays him perfectly.

Casey gets fewer moments than her castmates, but when she does it’s in an explosive revelation. It is heartfelt, touching and beautiful.

Rivera Lebron has to temper his performance as the therapist, but he does a marvelous job despite the restraints.

Andrew David Ostrowski illuminates the cramped office and throws the surroundings into pitch black.

Note: Spoilers are coming in the form of a warning, a trigger warning.

The show discusses suicide, and it can be disturbing.

If you are experiencing or contemplating suicidal thoughts, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline is available 24 hours a day and the help provided is free and confidential. 
Pittsburgh theater is at its peak with a plethora of must-see shows. Add this to the growing list, but do not miss it.


“Animal Kingdom” runs from June 14 – 30, 2024 at the Bingo O’Malley Theatre, barebones black box theater, 1211 Braddock Avenue, Braddock, PA 15104. For more information, click here.

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