Remains Theatre Ensemble

at the Organic Theater

Road is one damn good evening of theater. I don’t get to say that very often; hardly ever. Chicago has dozens of theater companies dedicated, as they say, to presenting new and challenging plays. You hear that claim a lot; but when you get there you often see the same old thing with new words, or some classic play tricked up with a dubious interpretation. But Road follows through. It takes you the distance.

Road is set in a small town in Lancashire, in northwestern England, on the short end of the stick of Thatcher’s economic austerity policies. Most of the characters in the play have been “made redundant”–a euphemism for unemployment. And, without the routine and ritual of the working week, an unquestioned order has been removed from these people’s lives. So now they must question, or crawl from pub to pub until they can’t hear themselves think anymore, or find — in the simple business of making up, dressing up, and going out — some order and reason to their lives.

It’s surprising that this should be Jim Cartwright’s first play. Not that it’s without antecedent or comparison. Road is a sort of Our Town fallen on hard times, complete with a narrator/tour guide character named Scullery, a wino eager to make you feel at home. Road isn’t as lovable and poetic as Under Milk Wood, nor as cynical as The Lower Depths; it’s more like the path between the two. But Road transcends the derivative with an originality of vision. Road is like an anthology with a cracked binding, the stories spilling out wonderfully into your lap.

Like the story of old Molly, with her pathetic tin of cosmetics, making up a face no one will want to look at, improvising little songs for herself, and “having some tea in between.” Molly is well out of it. Although it’s impossible to be certain, nothing seems to bother her. Later, she appears on the street, all dolled up in an impossible hat with feathers, singing a sweet but stupid song to Scullery, who’s appreciative but really has to be about his business . As Molly, Natalie West gives an excellent performance, patiently and gracefully crafted beyond the point where the craft is apparent; and you can’t see the actor for the character.

But, as you can imagine, if there were too many stories like Molly’s, the play would get sappy. It doesn’t. Exit Molly, enter Skin. Skin (played by Tim Hopper) is a skinhead gone Buddhist. He lives to fight and he stresses three essentials: fitness, tactics, and new techniques. The weirdest of these are the new techniques. By way of demonstration he focuses on attacking a certain vein in the neck, and, in a sequence of t’ai chi-like moves, he reaches behind his head, around, and touches his own neck. Skin has mastered self-destruction. It all came to him one night when he squared off against a magically elusive opponent who said, “Over to you, Buddha.” A changed skinhead, catapulted into an elusive quest for the “tingle,” Skin says, “Now I read the dharma.”

Joey’s story: Joey is on a “diet.” He stays in bed and won’t eat, cultivating the “black rose” inside him. Why bother? “The world’s a fat toilet,” and with no jobs, no hope, what’s the point of smiling?

Clare tries to snap Joey out of it, but winds up joining him in bed. “Are we protestin’?” she asks him. “Why are we doin’ this?” But Joey doesn’t have any answers or solutions only determination and anger, and so the two of them see it through, starving to death after a couple weeks. This is the most didactic, thematically loaded of Road’s many stories. But for some reason it doesn’t beat you over the head with its politics like, for instance, Athol Fugard’s plays do. Nor does it, by any means, pussyfoot around the issues. It’s bracing, like listening to the Sex Pistols play “Anarchy in the U.K.”

There are too many stories in Road to discuss here, so enough of that, and a little about the context. When you call to reserve a seat, you’re given a choice of fixed seating or “promenade.” The latter means that you simply hang around the set, moving about as the action of the play crops up here and there. I didn’t get the point of it at first. It seemed like the old 60s idea of integrating the audience with the production just for the hell of it. But then, with all those people gathered around Joey and Clare’s deathbed, it hit me. We’re witnesses. We can’t ignore this, as if we were riding the el. And the role of the audience is called into question. Do we just sit there, like detached, passive voyeurs, having our bit of theater? Or are we part of that town, hanging out, involved yet helpless?

Director Robert Falls’s integration of the audience and the production was not only reasoned and well handled — including the intermission entertainments — but had an ironic touch as well. Falls makes an apt social comment by anticipating a mixture of well-dressed theater patrons and starving and unemployed characters. Add to that Falls’s demanding use of talented actors, ridden hard but not put away wet, and a knack for creating pivotal dramatic moments. My favorite moments are oddly static, such as the scene in which two drunken couples are transfixed, motionless, listening to Otis Redding sing the blues. And there’s a monologue by Amy Morton, who plays a housewife reduced to begging to feed her children. “I’m like a bony rat, going here, going there, sniffing something out.” All Morton actually does is sit there and tell her story, but you can feel her character’s life twisting on a spit. Static but moving.

All of the cast are talented actors, and most of them play two or three major roles. Only Neil Gray Giuntoli (as Scullery) plays a single part. For a variety of reasons — including acting, directing, and costuming — Scullery never seems to fit in with the rest of the play. He looks like a character out of Dickens, rather than present-day Lancashire, which works against his function of lending continuity and cohesion to the play. The majority of the other characters, however, are both well drawn and cut of a regional cloth, so that they all belong. It takes a versatile actor to play several roles in an evening, and to do so with definition and distinction. The cast of Road is competent in that respect, creating not mere distinctions, but essential singularities, in their separate characters.

It’s a lot to take in in one night, a whole town, in fact. This is a very busy play, what with so many characters and the audience milling around and the richness of language and visual texture. You may overlook some splendid touches in passing, such as the chips without fish. You may be offended by casual obscenities, and the (well-coached) dialect takes some getting used to. But you’ll get the whole, all right. You may even become part of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Horan.