American Blues Theatre

Gary Leon Hill’s Food From Trash marks a disappointing opening for American Blues Theatre’s new 150-seat performing space. First staged in 1983, the heavy-handed script revolves around a corrupt waste-disposal company and the men who make their living hauling trash. The result is an unglamorous soap opera–dominated not by women in glitzy evening wear, but by men in flannel shirts. The plot is so weighed down by the characters’ infidelities and health problems and by conspiring bad guys that it’s impossible to believe the scenario or to care about these people.

Bob and Sudden, who work for Phil Cobb’s garbage company, are plagued by alcoholism and itchy, red forearms. It seems that something about garbage in general drives the spirit out of men and that something toxic in Phil’s garbage dump is slowly poisoning the community around it–though the effects on the workers and their families are so gradual that they don’t recognize the damage until it’s too late.

At the local diner and on the garbage route Bob dreams of breaking out of his dead-end job and taking up a career in electronics. Sudden would go somewhere too, if only he could afford the parts to fix his Chevy. His wife pops pills to lose weight and pleads for his love, their precocious foster daughter Lomar is bent on seducing all the men in the neighborhood, and their son is losing his hair, a side effect of living near the dump. Sarge, a third garbageman, adds even more conflict. Three months ago he was hurt in an accident caused by a faulty garbage truck and for reasons that are unclear went to jail. Within days of his return to Phil’s dump he dies, of either a heart attack or some garbage-related ailment.

Meanwhile, Phil and his son Butch are conspiring with a crooked female cop to find an environmental report that proves Phil has been dumping toxic waste in a landfill intended for residential waste and to find a former employee named Running Joke, a Native American who worked for the company for just a few days but immediately realized something shady was going on. A virtual fountainhead of knowledge, he believes valuable methane could be mined from the dump and seems to know what’s best for just about every character in the play.

Following the convoluted plot is especially difficult in this production, directed by William Payne, because many lines get lost on the large stage. Believing in the characters is also difficult because of a few awkwardly acted scenes. For example, Holly Hancock is much too young to be a convincing love interest (Alma) for Sarge, played by the gray-haired Bill Noble. When Sarge’s reunion with Alma is interrupted by a phone call, both actors seem relieved by the excuse to part.

Most of the actors, however, are better than the material. Paul Ratliff as Sudden, Cecilie Keenan as his wife, and Justina Machado as Lomar make a convincing dysfunctional family, but because their relationships aren’t explored they’re reduced to cliches. Michael Ramirez as Running Joke has a wonderfully deep, stoic voice for spouting wisdom, though expressions such as “You’re no better than you are” are puzzling just the same. Steve Emerson as Butch, Phil Cobb’s bellyaching son, comes close to providing comic relief. But only Rod Sell, who appears briefly as Phil, carves out a genuine character for himself. Sell plays the amoral trash tycoon Tennessee Williams-style and makes an enjoyable Big Daddy of garbage.

Jim Leaming and Mary Badger’s set revolves around an only partially successful gimmick: a garbage truck made out of a wood platform with a hole cut in the top and headlights on the front. When the garbagemen sit in the hole they’re “driving” the truck; when they lift the platform the sound of machinery chewing garbage (sound design by Marty Higginbotham and Joe Cerqua) tells us we’re now looking at the back end of the truck. It’s a nice device, but the actors look awkward pretending to drive onstage–like boys playing at driving the Batmobile. This set would have been appropriate if Hill’s play were a futuristic or comic-book drama. However, Food From Trash isn’t very playful or whimsical. And that’s the problem–the play should have been a satire. Unfortunately, except for a few attempts at humor, Hill played it straight.