Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Davis McCallum
Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited
There is quite an intriguing theatrical event occurring at the Rattlestick Theater, where two ninety-minute plays separated by a thirty-minute communal dinner break takes the stage to engage an audience of fifty, in two compelling dramas. The playhouse is stripped down to its original walls discovering weathered multi paned windows and worn wainscoting, wearing years of neglect, with some sections beyond repair. This is the performance space, perhaps a foreshadowing of a shared theme of discovery, as two brave young people make a journey following the steps of their ancestors only to reveal the ugly past and face the troubled and turbulent present.
The first play deals with Marnie (a fiesty, determined and fearless Leah Karpel) who is a direct descendant of Merriweather Lewis. She makes an unexpected visit to her estranged grandmother Alice (a solid and stoic Kristin Griffith), on what is left of the family farm. Alice has been selling off parcels of the family legacy to developers, who are devouring the small rural town and spitting out hundreds of new luxury condominiums. Alice has a roommate Connor (a calm and sensitive Arnie Burton) who is not only a friend but a caretaker, since Alice had to fight to survive cancer. There are more than enough confrontations between the three characters as secrets surface when layers are slowly peeled away from the protective façade they have built up over the years. Marnie exposes Connor as a closeted homosexual, delves into the depths of her mother’s suicide, challenges the sale of her heritage and in protest, she pitches her tent on the front lawn, refusing to leave. Ms. Griffith captures the pain, strength and fortitude of a crusty Midwest grandmother with perfection, but it is the piercing honesty in her eyes that conveys her compassion. Mr. Burton packs his character with fervent dignity, profound insight and tactful humility. Although Ms. Karpel gives a strong performance it lacks nuance and depth, but this may be the fault of the script or direction.
After the dinner break the audience visits Clarkston on the other side of the river from Lewiston where Jake, (a frail but determined Noah Robbins), is found following the trail of his distant relative William Clark. This is merely a pit stop on his way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, but to support his trek and bide his time, he takes a job at the Cosco across the street from the hotel. It is here that he meets co-worker Chris (a pragmatic and sensitive Edmund Donovan) and once again secrets penetrate the present causing torment and disruption. As the lives of these two young men collide, their diffidence and insecurity explode, as shrapnel of anger, pain and longing is hurled at their dreams. Enter Chris’ single mother Trisha, (a robust yet fragile Heidi Armbruster), a recovering drug addict who is desperately trying to reestablish a peaceful relationship with her son. All shed their exterior skins and bleed the truths of their existence until they collapse and need some sort of infusion of hope.
Jake is an open homosexual, has a neurological disease which will kill him before he is thirty and is a spoiled child from a wealthy Connecticut family from which he has fled. Chris is closeted and living the life of poverty in this small Midwest town. He is trying to save his broken mother, has dreams of finishing college and has yet had the opportunity to really love and be loved. Strange bedfellows that are a perfect match for exploring and discovery. This is a ninety minute emotionally brutal dance that remarkably is beautiful, tender and a joy to watch. Ms. Armbruster allows the smooth, hard shell of Trisha to crack, allowing a river of weakness to flow from within. Mr. Robbins is the epitome of confusion, changing like a chameleon, from a confident adventurer to a phlegmatic realist to a forlorn child instinctively choosing the correct passionate reaction to match the activity. Then there is Mr. Dononan who gives a compelling performance as Chris, coaxing every morsel of emotion from his damaged soul like a wounded soldier returning from a battle. His precise, skillful acting is only surpassed by his brilliant reacting which captures every human fiber and feeling of his character. He is a harbinger of a new generation of significant American actors.
Hopefully there will be another extension to the current run in its present state. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter has written a new classic American play, not quite a tragedy, but that being said, there are no resolutions to the inauspicious events. It is a valid commentary on the current social divide and the state of the country’s moral integrity, littering our small rural towns with big box stores and replacing farms with cubical condominiums to satisfy the greed and need of the wealthy. Even though the two works are complimentary, Clarkston, the latter of the pair could easily stand on its own and please future audiences. This is one of the best plays of the season and without doubt some of the finest performances. Give yourself a holiday gift and find a ticket to one of the remaining shows.