Soul of a Whore

Viaduct Theater

In Angels in America, Tony Kushner sees the tail end of the Reagan 80s as a time when “history is about to crack wide open.” In Denis Johnson’s Soul of a Whore, the concluding play in his trilogy about the troubled Cassandra clan set in the late 90s and early 21st century, history is cracked, all right–the mouth of hell is open for business in the dank heart of Huntsville, Texas, the execution capital of America.

In Johnson’s hands, the vague promise of the 90s–hinted at in Kushner’s homiletic epilogue, which ends with the benediction “More life”–turns into an apocalyptic threat. Johnson’s vision of the new millennium includes no angels but plenty of strippers, pimps, and killers entangled in their own greed and a voracious, annihilating appetite for vengeance, whether state sponsored or not.

Soul of a Whore, which grew in part out of a Rolling Stone article Johnson wrote in 2000 about capital punishment in Texas, is a messy work. And Whitney Blakemore’s Viaduct Theater staging doesn’t tease out all the strands in this nearly three-hour voyage of the damned. While it’s not essential to have seen or read the first two plays–Hellhound on My Trail and Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, which also premiered locally at Viaduct under Blakemore’s direction–it certainly makes parts of the plot more comprehensible. Johnson’s dramaturgical excess doesn’t help–the play is mostly written in blank verse. Still, this is a big-as-Texas canvas for the bloodlust that’s burgeoned with a terrible fury in recent years.

Set around and within Huntsville’s maximum-security prison, the Walls, Soul of a Whore is no simpleminded screed against capital punishment, any more than Kushner’s work is “about AIDS.” Johnson’s interest lies in what drives us to seek retribution under the guise of justice and in what that quest does to the human spirit.

The play begins in a Greyhound bus terminal, where recently paroled convicts (“recidivists in transit”) await transport to Dallas or Houston. Also waiting for the bus is a willowy young stripper, Masha (K.K. Dodds), on the run from her manager-pimp. She forms a connection with newly sprung embezzling preacher William Jennings Bryan Jenks (Paul Dillon), an offstage character in Hellhound. Of the three Cassandra brothers in the trilogy, only eldest brother John (J. Scott Turner) appears in this play. He too has done his time, for shooting at people.

The family matriarch, Bess (Ariel Brenner), was imprisoned earlier for “vehicular infanticide”: she purposely ran over the family’s youngest child, an event that echoes throughout Shoppers. Bess is now awaiting execution on a different charge–raping and murdering another female convict with a broom handle. John, convinced of his mother’s innocence in the latter crime, wants Jenks to be present at Bess’s execution to raise her from the dead.

Jenks is no true believer, but he does have the ability to communicate with demons–or at least one particular demon who migrates from person to person during the play (not unlike the shape-shifting character in Caryl Churchill’s apocalyptic The Skriker). The first person the demon possesses is Masha. Perhaps borrowing from Sam Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Johnson has Masha’s pimp, Sylvester, try to use her to dope out winners at the track. Once Jenks exorcises the demon, Masha rids herself of the stuttering Sylvester (Steve Walker in an assured comic turn) and joins forces with Jenks in his new evangelical road show. A year later they happen upon Simon Blaine, one of the victims of the underground mall fires in the second play, lying in a hospital room in a coma–at which point he becomes possessed. (Proving as avaricious as Sylvester, Jenks pleads with the demon for stock tips.) Eventually Masha leaves Jenks for Blaine’s brother, the technician in charge of executions at the Walls, and settles into the role of suburban housewife and death penalty advocate, becoming president of Texas Citizens for Victims’ Rights.

Abandoned by Masha and his congregation, the downward-spiraling Jenks still has the stubbornly faithful John. His belief–in his mother’s innocence, in Jenks’s capacity to work miracles–is the one unsullied virtue in Johnson’s world. Tellingly, John is the only Cassandra brother who never acquires a nickname and never sheds his prison whites–and the only character who doesn’t lie and try to excuse his own actions. Clearly intended to evoke Christly compassion, faith, and justice, John carries a giant cross covered with symbols of Christ’s crucifixion–hammer and nails, the dice the Romans used to divvy up his garments. On the day of his mother’s execution John dresses in a clown suit, explaining that “when men go murdering murderers, they mock God’s saving work and make a clown of Christ.” But Masha gets the last word, declaring at play’s end, “Let there be no Resurrection Day, if that’s what it takes to keep these killers dead.”

Johnson portrays with depressing accuracy the zero-sum game of payback. But ultimately his script can’t bear the weight of his ambitions, however laudable. Touching on globalized consumerism (Simon Blaine was buying gold in Kuala Lumpur when he was caught in the mall conflagration), sexual hypocrisy, family dysfunction, and the growth economy of imprisonment and execution, Johnson never brings any of these issues fully into focus. And the third act relies heavily on the motivations of ex-con HT (“Hostage Taker”), which are never believably limned.

Though Dillon’s turn as the oily but fearful Jenks, a healer in spite of himself, is astonishing, overall the performances feel far more tentative than those in Shoppers. And Johnson’s virtuoso turns of phrase and mordant wit here sometimes distract rather than illuminate. Still, there’s a ferocious, fearless moral conscience at work in Soul of a Whore. Johnson’s and Kushner’s epics bookend the same decade, but while Kushner offers a vision of hope and redemption, Johnson reveals a world that’s abandoned both.