Victory Gardens Studio Theater

I know, most rules exist to be broken. But here’s one for playwrights anyway: don’t let the past tense suck the life from your play. When a dramatist allows his play’s exposition to overwhelm the work’s present-tense actuality, he triggers a dramatic law of diminishing returns. The writer may think his vivid, stream-of-consciousness flashbacks can create thrilling theater all by themselves. But indulge yourself in too many, and you produce an illustrated lecture, a talky, overwritten, unconvincing piece of undramatized drama. A Diesel Moon.

In this Victory Gardens world premiere, New York playwright Robert Auletta seeks to dramatize the panic of a man at the end of his tether, a hero on a journey who suddenly finds himself peering into his own heart of darkness. Cap is a maverick trucker who’s retreated to a Rockies wilderness where he senses that something is waiting for him. Holed up on a mountain with his disaffected wife Marth, chugging down beer and bourbon, Cap confronts in flashbacks various misfits from his past; with them he rehashes inconsequential memories.

His dying father, a disillusioned right-wing vet, fumes that the America he’s leaving isn’t the one he fought for. Cap’s dead buddy Harrow Conroy, whose apparent murder in 1968 was for Cap the final disillusionment in a bad year, shows up early and often. A character who seems based on the wily trickster of Indian lore, Harrow tries to lure Cap into an act of violence against soulless American consumers, Harrow’s posthumous prey. So Cap has to die, symbolically, a second time–this time at the hands of his friend.

In short, Cap is your basic hard-driving, heavy-drinking, self-destructive Jack Kerouac/Malcolm Lowry escape artist, a renegade loner romantically pursuing a vision quest. You know this survivalist is noble because, in his search for authenticity, he can’t let go of the 60s. Unfortunately, this gutsy survivor is every bit as familiar as he sounds. Auletta gives him the usual bottom-of-the-bottle poetry of desperation–the kind where a little bit goes a long way. Here it goes much too far.

On top of this stereotype, Auletta throws in more chunks of exposition: because Cap has refused to join an independent truckers’ strike (his heart went out of the labor movement when Jimmy Hoffa died), he’s become a media hero, a cowboy trucker who refuses to let himself be organized. Starr, the other woman in his life, wants to exploit his notoriety. So Cap must resist this temptation, too. Finally, Marth implores Cap to end the violent spells that have come between them–and Cap does act on this wish.

Cap, who is like a shaman looking for a dream, finds his salvation in true Indian form: animistic visions of a spider and a bear confront him with the hope of redemption through nature. At the end he metaphorically puts on the bear’s mask, which, we’re led to believe, will show him the answer to it all.

In a play that runs nearly two and a half hours, this hurried, unconvincing conclusion is also one of the few scenes to happen in the present. It’s not enough. There’s no question Auletta is a clever conjurer, at times even a deft storyteller; as you watch Diesel Moon you can almost persuade yourself there’s meat on these bones and a purpose to the anecdotes. But an hour after it’s over, it’s clear that this folksy onslaught of multiple narration, confessions, and smoke-and-mirror imagery doesn’t add up. A ton of exposition yields a paltry payoff.

Diesel Moon has no drive; it lurches from one speech to another, in an order that seems all too arbitrary. It’s like sitting through a very obvious Sam Shepard play, with the imagery elaborately annotated and the characters ready to explain not only everything they’ve ever felt but all you’re meant to. But nothing gets dramatized.

The script’s clutter notwithstanding, James Bohnen’s staging (the opening offering in Victory Gardens’ studio season) makes Diesel Moon about as persuasive as it can be. As if to atone for Auletta’s excessive flashbacks, his cast work overtime to make their lecture-illustrations vivid. Joe D. Lauck as Cap has the knack of making a character’s freak-outs as natural as combing one’s hair; even when Lauck seems about to succumb to Auletta’s endless variations on “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” he manages to keep it fresh.

Bruce Barsanti plays Harrow–as well as a bombastic bear and a tinsel- decorated spider–with a passion that, since it owes so little to his lines, is almost scary. As Marth, Cheryl Carabelli tries not to get stuck on her character’s one-note righteousness, but she can’t play what isn’t there.

The only element here with an unforced eloquence is Chuck Drury’s set. Swirls of wooden slats abstractly suggest the encroaching forest and the title moon, and Cap’s treelike truck is a clever piece of prop metamorphosis. Ellen Jones’s lighting bathes it all beautifully. Their poetry can stand on its own.