Main Line Productions

at the ARC Gallery

With Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” as its unofficial anthem, hitchhiking seems a characteristically American phenomenon, for better or for worse. This democratic faith in the kindness of strangers has been affirmed in novels like On the Road and plays like Peter Hedges’s Oregon–and violated in the Body Politic’s recent The Hitch-Hikers and HBO’s cult thriller The Hitcher.

Taking the second route, Raven Roadway, a first play by Chicagoan Joe Larocca and a first effort by Main Line Productions, runs a fairly familiar course as it depicts in terse blackout scenes how a chance encounter goes haywire. An exercise in heating up character contrasts until the conflict explodes, this 45-minute Roadway is a good first play with a solid structure and the wisdom to know what to leave out. Even its problems are promising; its very predictability gives an audience an investment in the inevitable.

The generically named Hitcher (Jeanne Willcoxon) is an eager-eyed, idealistic English major who’s thumbing her way back to the party school she attends. Bubbling with unsought confessions and glib psychobabble about how she’s trying to find herself, Hitcher climbs in as the unsmiling Driver (Daniel C. Goodman) rescues her from the road. When in the course of her nervous, idle chatter Hitcher calls him a “wanderer,” Driver shoots back that he’s no such thing: wanderers have a destination, he’s a “drifter.” It’s the first ominous note–this and the black strangler strap Driver twists between his hands as he grips the imaginary steering wheel (fairly heavy-handed foreshadowing).

Though a few connections come out in conversation (they discover they never really knew their parents), it’s the disconnections that surge between them. Hitcher loves Keats and Eliot and believes in eternal verities; preferring Poe (hence the title), Driver will take fantasy over wishful thinking any day. Hitcher tokes on reefers, Driver pops pills. Out of nowhere, he calmly says, “My mother was a car.” Hitcher stares, dumbfounded.

Hoping to distract him from his darkening mood, as they travel through “[missile] silo country,” Hitcher launches the (doomsday) “scenario game,” in which she conjures up a Pollyanna-like solution to nuclear proliferation (the president’s daughter, fearful of the future, aborts his only grandchild and the leader of the “Free World” has a sudden change of heart). His heart-of- darkness scenario erupts into a rhapsody over the beautiful colors that Armageddon would unleash–and then, in Larocca’s most ingenious riff, imagines what would happen if the president pushed the button and the weapons didn’t work; we’d discover that all these years we were terrorized for no reason. Driver predicts it would cause an instant revolution–which would be ruthlessly repressed by weapons that did work.

Driver has forced the now quivering Hitcher to say she’s sorry she ever brought up this scenario game. When she soothingly suggests that society’s problems come from too much breakneck change, Driver fires back that it’s “a matter of direction, not velocity.” When, in her last and fatal attempt at idealism, she insists that people are responsible for themselves, Driver explodes into a soliloquy (she’s now present only as victim) that equates human life with the squishing of an ant. “I was born too late to have a future. . . . I’m a fucking desert! . . . I died with my mother.” Somehow Hitcher triggered–a bit too easily for my taste–the psychopath’s mother mania; this “drifter” has a (death trip) destination after all. The car is now accelerating like the soliloquy and there’s no getting out.

Besides exploiting more than exploring the frightened-female formula, Larocca’s script suffers from at least four too many blackout interruptions; far from building suspense, half-baked blackout scenes siphon off energy and make audiences think “So what?” just when they should care about what comes next. And several set speeches, particularly in the opening exposition, feel a mite too literary, spelling out conflicts we should dig out between the lines. But Larocca’s lines are never dull. Best of all, he keeps us guessing every mile of this dead-end trip. Nobody will fall asleep behind this wheel.

The staging by David Sinaiko stays on top of every perilous minute. Willcoxon has created a fresh, engaging Hitcher: she carries her naivete as easily as her backpack (I’d hate to guess which weighs more). Willcoxon, however, reacts too much. She moves from chirpy and somewhat unmotivated affability to far too palpable boredom to claustrophobic terror. But the last rings true with a vengeance.

Goodman’s Driver starts off too calmly; I know it’s to lull us into false complacency, but we’d have a greater stake in the story if early on we saw Driver’s manic edge cut through his small talk. But, like Willcoxon, Goodman delivers a whopping payoff in the final scene, one that’s all the more remarkable because Larocca hasn’t adequately prepared us for this freak-out. The same way he did in his solo performance in Igloo’s Prelude to a Death in Venice, Goodman pulls out all the stops; to quote from Second City Television, “he blowed up real good.”

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