Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Review by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited
Rural green forest swallows the set of “Pitbulls,” the most recent installment from veteran playwright Keith Josef Adkins. Though overwhelming at first glance, the lush stage proves a fitting frame for this gothic tale of love and violence. Mary, a modern-day witch survives in the forest by brewing wine with her son Dipper. When the mayor’s prize-fighting pitbull is killed, suspicion falls upon the boy and his mother. The events of the play put Mary on a collision course with Virgil, the town policeman hell-bent on forcing Dipper into the fold. A Bloody-Mary myth respun in rural, black Appalachia, old skeletons and sins of the past are dug up and revived as the play nears its pinnacle.
Maurice Williams is awkward and endearing as Dipper, a teen trapped between two worlds, uncomfortable in his skin. He’s a lovable, good-hearted misfit, but mercurial enough to make one wonder whether or not he’s the dog slayer. Yvette Ganier’s Mary is a mix of thick sink and soft-spoken ruthlessness. She’s stalwart in maintaining her independence from the wicked ways of the world, a stubbornness that eventually costs her what she holds most dear.
And yet for all grit, for all the gothic reverberations dripping from the walls, “Pitbulls” never bites as hard it could. Disharmony is the culprit. Adkin’s play swells with symbolism and is rife with metaphor, but the play peculiarly bends towards comedy. Catty digs and sexual romp defuse the tensions before they ever have a chance to swell. Virgil, who could be an imposing, savage, shell of a man is played gentle and blithe. It’s hard to fathom he’s done the monstrous things he’s said to have done. When it comes time to for Virgil to perform his violence onstage, it’s not so much jarring as out of place. Director Leah C. Gardiner paints with broad strokes, never quite pushing the play to its potential.
“Pitbulls” picks up significantly in the second act. The murdered dog ‘whodunit’ takes a backseat to the Mary’s relationship with her son, Virgil, and Wayne, a saucy, disillusioned pastor head-over-heels for her. “Pitbulls” ends not with a bang, but a whisper, trailing off into the lonely forest like a good old-fashioned folktale. I wouldn’t be surprised if a reimagining of this play wasn’t far off, hopefully one less afraid of the dark. That Maurice Williams, though, he plays the kind of outcast we go to the theatre to see.