Civitas Theatre

at Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre

Civitas Theatre calls its program of one-acts “Plays That Dan Quayle Would Hate.” Of course this heading is taxonomically incorrect–real and fictional characters don’t inhabit the same spheres. And the people in these two dramas are far too real to be associated with the likes of Mr. Quayle.

When Joyce Carol Oates’s Tone Clusters opens, a crime has been committed and a suspect taken into custody. Frank and Emily Gulick sit before a television camera while images are projected onto video screens scattered over the stage echoing the topics being discussed. A man who could be a talk-show host, a police detective, or the voice of their conscience solicits their opinions on a variety of knotty ethical problems. Is violent crime the result of social malaise? Can guilt reside in those without conscience? Is there really such a thing as an unpremeditated murder? Can psychotic aggression be foreseen? Does a “good” family guarantee a “good” child? The questions grow ever more abstract and enigmatic: “Is the intrusion of the ‘extraordinary’ into the dimension of the ‘ordinary’ an indication that such Aristotelian categories are invalid? If one day fails to resemble the preceding one, what does it then resemble?” Meanwhile Mr. and Mrs. Gulick struggle to retain their middle-class notions of the universe and their place in it in the face of overwhelming evidence that their son, Carl, has brutally raped, mutilated, and murdered the teenage girl next door.

As dysfunctional families reliably demonstrate, a short memory is helpful in maintaining a harmonious facade. When the interrogator notes that Carl’s room contained an extensive collection of paramilitary literature and paraphernalia, in addition to several sadistically defaced pornographic magazines, the culprit’s father protests weakly, “They were hobbies!” Increasingly the Gulicks find themselves confronted with their own selective amnesia: Emily nostalgically recalls details of Carl’s infancy only to realize suddenly that she’s remembering his brother instead. They’re also forced to question their long-held beliefs–Frank voices his support of capital punishment before he remembers his offspring may be subject to it. In the end the alleged killer’s parents are shown not to have known their child at all, even as they declare their certainty that he’s innocent. “If your own flesh and blood looks you in the eye, you believe,” Frank says. Emily concurs: “I looked into my son’s eyes and I saw truth shining.” To which the interviewer wryly responds, “We have here the heartbeat of parental love and faith.”

Particularly in these slogan-shouting times, it would be tempting to play Frank and Emily as cartoons–after all, the mom ‘n’ pop from Jersey (or Kansas, or Texas, or Ohio) have long been a staple of improv comedy. Director Mark Salamon has resisted this easy option and instructed Kelly S. Jones and Rhonda Reynolds (and Brian McCaskill as the Voice) to play their characters with such unbroken conviction that we find ourselves wanting to comfort and reassure the couple even as we shrink from their blindness. They could be our parents, they could be anybody’s parents–they could be the parents we see on TV doggedly insisting that the killer was a good boy and blaming “the system” for his transgressions.

A different kind of unhappy family populates Israel Horovitz’s Stage Directions. In a Chekhovian scene a brother and sister return from their parents’ funeral and are joined by their tardy younger sister, after which all three of them proceed to behave as disgustingly to one another as they can. What distinguishes this one-act from standard realistic drama is that Horovitz has eliminated all dialogue; stage directions reveal the subtext instead. For example, “She holds the whiskey bottle a moment before breaking”–smash–“it against the side of the bar.”

This technique is most often used to comic effect, since a speaker’s actions are so often at variance with his or her perceptions. But director Peter C. Hobert has his actors (Ted Rubenstein, Wendy Rae, and Mindy Hester) do exactly as they themselves say–making their characters’ insular self-conscious narratives not simply a comedy gimmick or a classroom exercise but a startlingly accurate rendering of the manner in which people cope with trauma by “pulling back,” viewing themselves as if from a distance.

When the Civitas Theatre made its debut in 1991, I feared that these recent graduates of the Goodman-DePaul Theatre School would soon, under the pressure of show-biz commercialism, forget all they’d learned there. But Tone Clusters and Stage Directions demonstrate that they’ve lost none of their dedication to finely crafted productions.