Victory Gardens Theater


at the Civic Studio Theatre

Recently a friend who teaches reading to disabled kids described how she felt the first time a student made sense of a sentence. She said there’s no thrill like it: suddenly a life split into two parts–before and after reading. Half the child’s future battles were won because these letters combined to mean something.

As passionately as my friend told it, it still seemed an abstract experience–after all, it’s almost impossible to remember the person you were before you could read. But a similar breakthrough happens in William Mastrosimone’s Tamer of Horses when a tough, illiterate street kid learns to recognize the letters D-O-G as a word he’s often said. The moment is as specific as the “miracle” when Helen Keller understands the sign for “water” in Annie Sullivan’s hand–or as the first word you ever read.

Tamer is filled with a lot of well-wrought revelations. Hector, a smartass macho punk, finds shelter in a barn owned by Ty and Georgiane Fletcher, a black couple living on a farm in upstate New York. The kid, who has just escaped from a juvenile detention center that he trashed before he left, is bloody from tearing through barbed wire. But that feat is nothing to him: “I eat barbed wire for breakfast!”

Ty refuses to call the cops. So Hector, confused and wanting to impress this sympathetic stranger, opens up. It seems he’s always running from something. He calls himself a “‘bortion” (one of many words that Hector shortens for speed or because he never got them right to start with); his real parents were the doctor and nurse who forced him to live–his mother just wanted him cut out and thrown away. He brags how he’s going to be a millionaire with Cadillacs when the love songs he writes make him famous. He boasts of the girls who cut each other up fighting over him. When he watches Wild Kingdom, he cheers on the lions and despises the zebra, who only wants to live.

But Ty sees another Hector. Like Dr. Dysart in Equus, Ty thinks this boy might be his last chance to discover whether he has a calling. Though he’s been laid off as a classics teacher and now refinishes furniture, Ty still wants to inspire one student to heroic greatness.

Despite Georgiane’s distrust–she’s certain Hector is a thief–Ty sets out to make the boy earn his board, not just by chopping wood but by learning to read. When Hector raps on “I’m too cool for school” (which Ty quickly turns into his own rhyming rebuttal), Ty argues that Hector can’t shape things if he can’t put names to what he wants to change. “Words,” he says in Apollonian fashion, “are the reins of emotion,” and “You need discipline to be free.” Ty shares with Hector the Iliad stories about the boy’s famous namesake; the Trojan’s exploits fit right into Hector’s own battle-reared self-image.

But this instruction turns out to be a two-way street. In a truly chilling scene, Hector demonstrates how he psyches out which dudes he and his two “wolf pack” gangbangers decide to mug in the subway. But Hector also proves himself a terrific salesman at the flea market where Ty hawks his furniture. And he imitates unwittingly the Trojan “tamer of horses” by working in Ty’s stable. Finally, as a sort of valedictory, Hector offers Ty his own slang version of the life of Hector–true to Homer’s spirit, it’s colorful, exuberant, and juicy, a streetwise tour de force. (It would make a terrific audition speech for any actor who could bring it off.)

Boldly setting aside audience expectations, Mastrosimone does not supply Tamer with a happy ending, unlike the works it’s modeled on (The Corn Is Green, Angels With Dirty Faces, even My Fair Lady). Unctuously sincere it may be in places, but it’s honest in its ending. Just as well, too: given Hector’s knee-jerk machismo, it would be impossible for this kid to learn only from success. He needs to realize, as if for the first time, how much he “always blows it.” But thanks to Ty, now Hector has the tools to forge an alternative to slugging “suits” in subway restrooms. And the playwright refuses to play into a cheap Republican reaction along the lines of: “Didn’t I tell you? You only hurt them when you do them favors.” Tamer is no case history for conservatives.

Though Mastrosimone (author of Extremities and The Woolgatherer) originally wrote Tamer as an all-black play, ever since its inaugural production at New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre, directors have cast Hector creatively–with the author’s willing consent. Jonathan Wilson’s well-felt Victory Gardens staging follows suit. Hector is played by Dan Moser, a white actor who makes himself thoroughly at home with Hector’s rapping and jive talk. In fact it’s scary how well Moser has Hector down–the hunched shoulders, cocky strut, caged-animal reactions, elaborate fantasy mongering, chronic lying, uncontrollable impulses, self-fulfilling failures, binge drinking. And on the flip side of Hector’s soul, the baffled surprise when he discovers he’s got a conscience. Great work.

Because of Hector’s anarchic energy, his part feels a lot fresher and looser than the roles of Ty and Georgiane. These are traditional characters, and show it. Ty waxes rhetorical when he sketches out his motivations for helping Hector–his idealism and his guilt over the death (in jail) of his criminal brother, Sam. Several of Ty’s speeches sound like tough-love replays of Scared Straight. Chuck Smith initially seemed uncomfortable in the role, but in the second act, when Ty must hold his own against Hector’s power plays, Smith finally worked up a head of steam.

The character of Georgiane verges on the irrelevant. She’s there mainly to anchor the sometimes saintly Ty in a real family, and perhaps to discourage our seeing any homoerotic overtones in the relationship between Ty and Hector. So it’s a mystery why, in the second act, Mastrosimone holds up the action while Georgiane tries to get her husband back into teaching by promising him a baby. Despite the problems with this character and her function, by play’s end E.J. Murray has shown enough strength to justify Georgiane’s being there.

By then we also know just how much Georgiane and Ty will remain part of Hector, two inner voices that, like it or not, he’ll hear wherever he goes. And by then–best of all–he can read. Half the battle is over.

A perfectly preserved river town some 167 miles west of Chicago, Galena has become the Williamsburg of Illinois. But in Galena, every building is authentic to its century–the 19th–and with its hilly streets and vistas, it feels more like San Francisco than somewhere in the prairie state. And Galena’s history is more like the Wild West than the “Old West”–the term for Illinois before it became the Land of Lincoln. That history comes to full-blooded life in Jim Post’s rip-snorting, toe-tapping, good-hearted one-man show, Galena Rose: How Whiskey Won the West.

Employing his own versatile voice and a busy banjo and guitar, Post really covers the waterfront (he claims Galena was once the busiest port north of Saint Louis). Galena Rose regales audiences with tall but true tales of this boomtown, the site of this country’s first big mineral bonanza. It seems that lead made the land around Galena so valuable that trespassers declared open season on the Indians’ birthright. As usual, the U.S. Army provoked the Winnebago and other tribes into a war they couldn’t win, and when the Indian tribes had been decimated, their survivors were deported to the other side of the big river. Whether portraying the great Black Hawk or singing “Run, Indian, Run,” Post conveys all the squalor of the white man’s hustle.

What drove Galena’s history, the liquid that made it all go down, was whiskey. The pioneers’ rotgut was the all-purpose barter, the anesthetic that made the frontier palatable to settlers and besotted the Indians till they signed away their futures. Post, his eyes bulging with dipsomaniacal fervor, offers his own rollicking hymn to the brown brew (“the color of God’s eyes”) and its power to change in only a few hours from the “nectar of God” to the devil’s poison. (Post can really describe a hangover from the inside out.)

Performed with full-throttle gusto and contagious delight, Galena Rose teems with a rich mix of characters: confidence men, keelboaters who could brag Paul Bunyan into modesty, captains who turned steamboats into race hounds, genteel eastern ladies bravely hunkering down, a black miner trying to buy his freedom, and an antislavery preacher whose firebrand sermons scorched the heads of his congregation. Very much his own confidence man, Post brings it all down home, with the help of some slides of Galena, a backdrop of a dark valley, that all-important bottle of whiskey, and his own terrific talent.