Body Politic Theatre

The first glimpse playwrights often get of an emerging work is of its payoff, some scene that haunts and holds the mind and, like Pirandello’s characters, demands its right to life. Sometimes that moment of truth, like Laura discovering she’s not one more freakish exhibit in her glass menagerie, is so strong a good playwright can pull the rest of the play out of it. Usually it’s not; and then the rest of the play must hold its own–or more. The other solution is to keep things short: a surprise climax works on Twilight Zone because we don’t have time to see it coming and haven’t invested so much in the show that a trick at the end won’t satisfy us.

One of many problems with E. Eugene Baldwin’s Moonlight Daring Us to Go Insane, a play that was workshopped extensively (but not successfully) during the recent Great Chicago Playwrights Exposition, is that it requires entire geologic eras to get to a microscopic payoff and, worse yet, doesn’t even reach it honestly. The ton of exposition that makes the first act feel like a whining engine that won’t turn over leaves out just what we need to know in the second. After all the waiting, the Big (but not very original) Revelation comes accidentally.

It’s as if Baldwin decided, “OK, my two hours are up. H-e-r-e’s the secret!” You leave with the theater’s cruelest question, “So what?” echoing in your brain.

It is a sultry August evening in 1932 in the downstate hamlet of Mount Vernon, and a baby has drowned at a pond. Hannah Blake, the mother, remains in shock, able only to blurt out that she thinks she saw the ghost of her other son, Glen Bradley, take the child from her. Only 18, Glen died a year ago under mysterious circumstances. (First mistake: Glen’s death isn’t sufficiently not talked about to arouse our suspicion; second mistake: the strangeness of the baby’s death is established and then forgotten.)

Gathered for the baby’s wake, the mourners define themselves by their (predictable) reactions to the tragedy. The new and very wet behind the ears, 20-year-old minister, preciously named Dove Whitley, prates about how it’s all part of God’s great design if we could but know it, etc. Speaking a prose as stiff as the corpses he handles, the cynical, irreligious, and, of course, tippling undertaker–his name, J. Earl Sheets, as subtle as the preacher’s–sardonically imagines that God’s quota of disasters wasn’t met, so He swept down to snatch the baby’s soul. Sheriff Corley prefers to blame it on the moonlight (“I’d arrest the moon for this,” he says without a sign of inebriation). Holy-rolling Aunt May June, a one-woman Pentecostal nightmare, praises Jesus and faints, while her slow-talking farmer husband, who hates funerals, sneaks a drink. Finally, the family matriarch, Grandma Harmony Miller (yet another semaphore label) is rightly sick of them all; she also sneaks a drink (clearly Baldwin’s emblem of mental health).

And then, appearing too late to matter much, there is Red Blake, the dead baby’s father, a self-proclaimed “last of the cowboys” and Baldwin’s cardboard heavy. A born-again hunter who believes nature is just “one vast eating machine,” Red exhibits all the sensitivity and respect for life of Huck Finn’s daddy with a hangover. Holed out in the woods with his favorite gun and a lot of stored-up bile, this poor man’s Hemingway has convinced himself that the baby’s death is all Hannah’s fault. After considerately waiting an hour and a half (while probably killing Bambi’s relatives), Red bursts in on the funeral party, takes them hostage at gunpoint, and threatens to kill the preacher and everyone else if they can’t bring the baby back to life. Since Mount Vernon lacks a SWAT team, we now have to endure a flashback–Glen acting out his anger at the father who cursed him because he was too sissified to shoot defenseless forest creatures.

In the midst of this sadistic merger of The Great Santini with Tobacco Road, the daughter (called Mitchel because Red wanted only boys) suddenly (or is it finally?) reveals what really happened to Glen. Which news we hadn’t been expecting nor do we want now. Exasperatingly, Baldwin has only raised more questions, while the ones he already set up go unexplored.

Besides beating to death such metaphors as the moon, the heat, and God Almighty, Baldwin’s dialogue suffers from pseudoprofundities like “Hope is not food when you’re starving for love,” greeting-card nature imagery, and heavy-handed similes on the order of Glen comparing his father to a storm and himself to a frail plant destroyed before its time. All Moonlight amounts to is one more installment of the desperate dramatist’s favorite quiz show, I’ve Got a Secret.

Pauline Brailsford found a fine ensemble for this Body Politic season opener, but like gapers passing a grisly auto wreck the cast of 11 approach the material warily and stick to the slow and steady. Though no part ever grows beyond its opening stereotype and about half are superfluous, Gary Houston brings his usual wry resignation to the mortician, Anne Bernadette Coyle makes much of the foxy old grandma, Maureen Gallagher makes a perkily phony folksinger at the funeral, and, as the pulpit pounder, Greg Rohe nicely plays variations on his given trait of callowness.

Given her sparse dialogue, Mary Cooper can only hint at Hannah’s inner workings (though the wife improbably snaps out of her sorrow long enough to give hubby an out-of-nowhere lecture). Likewise, though stuck in a one-note part, Ross Salinger plays Glen’s ghost with lifelike desperation. Finally, Ned Schmidtke has the thankless task of impersonating a sewer named Red; he backs up beautifully.

Happily enough, Baldwin needn’t worry about the future of Moonlight. He’s got just enough here for a good 22-minute episode of Tales From the Dark Side. They love this stuff–and the television market for phony suspense is virtually inexhaustible.