Absolute Theatre Company
THIS IS THE RILL SPEAKING
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” a disaffected man leaves his wife and moves into an identical house a block away. So complete is the change that Hawthorne suggests Wakefield might as well have run off to the South Seas. Alienation can go no further.
In his surreal sitcom Reckless, currently being produced by the Absolute Theatre Company, Craig Lucas pulls a similar trick on his antiheroine, Rachel. A justifiably paranoid Alaskan woman, she also leaves home only to encounter a series of nightmares. Over several very unmerry Christmases, she undergoes all the trials of Job–without a God or devil to make sense of them.
Her first ordeal comes on a Christmas Eve, when her toddler son tells her she’s “fired” as a mommy. The next morning her husband, Tom, nervously tells her he’s taken out a contract on her life. Instead of the puppy she asked for, Rachel gets to flee the house with only a bathrobe and some sore feelings.
Rachel hooks up with Lloyd, a good samaritan who works with the handicapped. Himself on the run–after walking out on a wife with multiple sclerosis and running over his baby’s head with a snowblower–Lloyd persuades Rachel to move into the home he shares with his paraplegic deaf companion, Pooty. (Rachel soon discovers that Pooty only pretends to be deaf in an appeal to Lloyd’s pity.) They find Rachel a job at the “Hands Across the Sea” charity, where they believe in hiring the handicapped–because they cost so little. There Rachel is asked to mail letters that are really anagram messages detailing a bizarre Albanian spy plot involving her former husband Tom and biogenetic terrorism. Then somehow Rachel, Pooty, and Lloyd get on a Your Mother or Your Wife quiz show where, impersonating each other, they earn $120,000.
But Lucas’s roller coaster goes down as well as up. On another vicious Christmas, Tom returns, pleads with Rachel to come back to him, gives her a Christmas gift–a dead puppy in an airless box–and then tries to kill her with poison champagne. Instead he manages to off himself and Pooty by mistake. It seems Rachel knew too much about the anagrams; the joke, such as it is, is that she’s more mystified than anyone.
The catalog of calamities continues: Rachel again is almost assassinated (during an Oprah-like talk show); five psychiatrists–in the usual “blame the victim” style–try to convince Rachel this is all her terrible dream; and demented Lloyd dies a pathetic death from his nonstop diet of champagne. The one hopeful moment comes when Rachel, now a psychiatrist herself, meets a person from her past. In effect he returns her to the opening scene in the play, where everything had started going downhill. Maybe, the play thinly hints, events may now take a different course. Ha!
That’s assuming that Rachel can grasp the morbid little lessons to be dug from this dark comedy: that you never really know anyone, that happiness is a nonsensical accident, and, that you can never escape your past. You heard it here last.
The horrors in Reckless cover the same tabloid territory as John Guare’s Landscape of the Body. But Lucas, way out of his league, offers much less wit, vigor, and poetry, while his send-up of phony Christmas cheer–did you know “Santa” is an anagram for “Satan”?–has none of the bite of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The sick jokes in Reckless aren’t wild or clever enough to overcome their own rancid aftertaste. Relying on shock effects, which steadily diminish, Lucas’s black humor thuds from one mean-spirited, heavy-handed catastrophe to another, like a jumbo jet taxiing down the runway and never taking off. And Rachel, a very clumsy Candide, catches on so slowly we lose interest. Her one interesting moment comes when she speculates on whether a small evil can head off a greater.
Dennis McCullough’s well-targeted staging certainly gives Reckless every chance to prove its worth. Relentlessly the action lurches from one black Christmas to another. The nine actors, so many clay pigeons for Lucas to shoot down, hurl themselves recklessly into their assorted sorrows. With spunk to spare, Elaine Carlson gives her pointlessly suffering Rachel the right chirpy naivete; David Cameron’s Lloyd has a spiky fortitude sadder than words; and in a small tour de force, Jane Blass plays all five shrinks, who are wildly different, with protean zeal (the parody of primal-scream therapy is especially delicious).
But good work won’t save a bad play. Even if Lucas never meant to aim for Hawthorne’s restraint, he could at least have copied his concision. Compared to Lucas’s better work–Blue Window, or even the overly arch Three Postcards–Reckless is an unqualified mess, a poor choice for the Absolutes to have saddled themselves with.
As the second offering in its “shorties” series, given on nights the theater might otherwise have been dark, the Raven Theatre has revived one of Lanford Wilson’s earliest works, the 30-minute This Is the Rill Speaking. (The small-town atmosphere and poetic counterpoint technique of this 1965 work anticipate Rimers of Eldritch.)
Something of a combination of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Wilson’s “play for voices in one act” is set in the Ozarks; in James Balcazar’s natural, fluid, and often musical staging, six actors play 15 roles. Only a few are hillbilly stereotypes; the rest are as full-blown as Wilson’s urban denizens in his play for city voices, Balm in Gilead.
The play uses a cinematic crosscutting technique. We get assorted village gossip from the perspiring women and hilariously dull farm talk from the men. A girl talks to her doll. A family picks through dinner. Two boys jerk off in the dark. A teen plays pool; another gets drunk fast and hard and his friends have to organize the usual cover-up. Two rural lovers, like Wilder’s George and Emily, go through the usual hesitation dance. Two farm women exuberantly decorate an imaginary house. Finally a boy–an Arkansas Lanford Wilson?–decides he’s going to write all this down–except he’ll have nature do the talking: “This is the rill speaking.” Rill ends with a communal “good night” that anticipates the Waltons by at least a decade.
The young Raven ensemble for the most part succeeds in impersonating the inhabitants of a country hamlet; particularly good work comes from Nance Zimmerman, as the girl in the midst of her first love and as a crotchety older woman, and Scott Swenson as the would-be writer. You could do worse than listen to the rill on Clark Street.