Goodman Theatre

Steve Tesich’s latest work implies a “speed of darkness” that rivals that of light–he seems to believe there’s a malign, invisible force threatening the security of what we can actually see. What’s more unsettling is that the darkness comes from the hero in The Speed of Darkness, a prosperous building contractor who carries a secret: his happy family’s beautiful home literally looks out onto a crime.

By the end of this Goodman Theatre world premiere, the “speed of darkness” comes alarmingly close to a familiar, reliable theatrical formula: plant a bomb in a character’s past and wait for it to explode. Still, it’s a formula that refuses to lose power. Unleashed in such vastly different but equally ethical plays as Oedipus Rex, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the skeleton-in-the-closet strategy hits us where we fear. Relying on the exposure of an evil secret (a son’s murder of his father, the poisoning of a spa, the delivery of defective airplane parts in wartime), it seeks to exorcise guilt, individual or collective, and pave the way for a better future.

In Darkness the secret is literally buried. Joe, the one who buried it, is a self-made man living in a sprawling house he built himself. A respected citizen who endows playgrounds and helps kids find summer jobs, Joe shares his success with his adoring wife, Anne, and his bubbly daughter, Mary, a glowingly well-adjusted high school senior. Joe is even a contender for South Dakota’s “Man of the Year.” But the Joe we see is a man who’s very ambivalent about his success, who fears that any change might threaten his fragile happiness: “Everything suddenly seems just right, and I only wish it could all stop.”

After such hubris, you know he’ll get it hard. The portentous first act teems with an almost Shakespearean foreshadowing of doom for this midwestern paradise. Mary, who’s full of her own forebodings, imagines a nemesis ready to come out of the plains to stalk them. Anne looks wise but acts worried. Joe is rankled by the hero worship lavished on him by Eddie, Mary’s idealistic boyfriend, the choruslike narrator who frames the play.

The pot starts boiling when Joe gets an unexpected visit from Lou, an old war buddy from Vietnam and Mary’s godfather. Homeless, self-effacing, and disarming, Lou is a forlorn pilgrim who’s been crisscrossing the country to follow a touring photographic exhibit of the Vietnam War Memorial (Lou calls it “Son of Wall”). Lou sees himself as one more casualty of the war. After he tried to scratch his name on the memorial and a polite young marine dragged him off saying, “The wall’s only for those who died, not for those who survived, sir,” Lou answered: “I swear to you, I didn’t survive.” Unlike Joe, Lou remembers. Despite everything he hasn’t lost his sense of humor; without a hint of self-pity he explains why tramps prefer to sleep under traditional sculpture rather than modern art. (The Goodman audience loved this homeless humor.)

Of course Lou is impressed by Joe’s vast home and its view of a mesa rising over an ancient glacial plain. That mesa is the cause of his visit. Lou read in a newspaper (one he’d been sleeping under) that a Canadian developer intended to build homes on the mesa. The trouble is Lou knows what’s buried there and why. (Both men, bitter from their Vietnam experiences–they’d been napalmed by their own planes and physically altered by radiation treatment–felt abandoned by their country and took their vengeance out on the land.) Tesich’s time bomb detonates: with one convulsive act, Lou forces Joe to come clean.

Far from living the American dream, Joe is of course the American nightmare, the symbol of our failure to cope with a discredited past (the Vietnam war), to save our people (the homeless), or to prove our faith in the future (the environment). Tesich clearly feels that Joe’s confession is one the entire country needs to make. So it’s curious that the author particularizes Joe’s plight and in the process blurs the moral problems. No everyman, Joe is a specific war veteran who suffered a searing and unusual battle injury, then took out a concrete revenge on the country he felt had failed him. And what happens to him later seems accidental: we never see him choose to confess. Were it not for the play’s traumatic events, Joe might well remain South Dakota’s favorite son. Though Tesich fully intends Joe’s corruption to feel too close for comfort, it doesn’t come close enough.

If Joe is meant as a symbol of what’s wrong with America, he’s so circumscribed that he lets a lot of other miscreants off the hook. Moreover, his particular situation does not offer much hope–he might easily have continued his cover-up–and his sandwich-board self-diagnosis provides little insight: “I feel like I got the problems of a great man and the inner resources of an ordinary guy.” Where’s Thoreau when you need him?

Admittedly All My Sons, a play that covers everything that The Speed of Darkness attempts, is equally specific; but it springs its secret with far more finesse. Other factors make this ambitious but derivative play weaker than Miller’s melodrama. Despite some charming family byplay (redolent of Tesich’s Oscar-winning Breaking Away), the first act is too coyly ominous. The choppy and drawn-out second act has an uncertainty of tone that prevents it from building to the peak Tesich seeks–a public confession that the South Dakota audience (and by implication the American public) doesn’t want to hear. And the final tableau–the family disappears into the cyclorama–is too easy, considering all that went before it.

But the big problem is the play’s own moral failure, its portrayal of Lou. Yes, on one level Lou is delightfully Dickensian. But it’s not so delightful that, though destitute, he still believes in a future, thus demonstrating the far-seeing nobility of poverty. And what really stinks here is how easily we accept Lou’s homelessness. Nobody in the play questions it, not even Lou. This colorful, passionate, and ultimately expendable prole is there just to make a terrible sacrifice so that Joe can wise up to what’s sick in his life. Tesich simply expunges a potentially embarrassing character who deserves a lot better.

In one detail especially Tesich gets this MIA (“missing in America”) radically wrong. Lou jokingly confesses that he always gives up breakfast if there’s any hope for lunch, or lunch for dinner. No way. A man who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from refuses no meal–he’s always storing up. Lou is just the kind of homeless person that many in the Goodman crowd want to believe is typical–humorous, self-effacing, and no bother, right down to his ghastly and gratuitous end.

Despite a plethora of pungent blackout scenes, Robert Falls’s staging can’t move this tragedy any faster than the stately script allows; we’re almost always ahead of the character-symbols. But Falls atones for the protracted agonies by eliciting performances that seldom miss their mark. Even after Joe has indicated his guilt in everything but sign language, Bill Raymond can still turn this character into a human pressure cooker; his long-delayed explosion is just what the playwright ordered. As his wife, Lee Guthrie makes much of her big (if vague) scene in which Anne pleads with Joe for the two of them to start over again. Guthrie’s earlier irritating blitheness here shifts to a bedrock desperation.

Brigitte Bako plays Mary, the innocent whom Joe calls his “little miracle,” with the required heartland spunk, but she’s so preternaturally perky at the beginning you wonder if her final despair isn’t also overplayed. Saddled with the editorializing role of boyfriend Eddie, who basically just reacts to the other characters, Andy Hirsch bounces from an uncritical adoration of Joe to a crushing disillusionment. (Eddie is given one very incisive observation, that each night his family is brought together by watching other people’s sufferings on TV.)

Stephen Lang, burrowing deep into the disturbing character of Lou, employs a jerky delivery like a stand-up comic’s: it pathetically conveys how seldom Lou has gotten to talk to people, and how eager he is to get it all out. It’s not Lang’s fault that whatever rough edges there were to this 1989 “little tramp” were smoothed out well before opening night.

The key player is Thomas Lynch’s set, which is dominated by a huge triangular picture window, the apex pointing menacingly at the characters. Framing the vast Goodman cyclorama, the window reveals billowing clouds and fiery sunsets–but its panes just as easily reduce the characters to reflections, to their own ghosts. Fittingly, Michael Philippi’s lighting varies from an apocalyptic glow to pinpoints that virtually skewer the characters. Rob Milburn’s music and sound provide their own aural quicksand.