Tomek Adler, left, and Karl Herlinger (photo by Darrett Sanders)
Tomek Adler, left, and Karl Herlinger (photo by Darrett Sanders)
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American Falls


Reviewed by Deborah Klugman

The Echo at Atwater Village Theatre

Through Oct. 11.


Playwright Miki Johnson’s discerning but uneven one act takes place in small-town America and calls to mind Thoreau’s phrase “lives of quiet desperation.”


Unveiled in a series of monologues, the story revolves around the unhappy marriage between Lisa (Deborah Puette, alternating with Andrea Grano), at one time a happy, gregarious woman, and Samuel (Karl Herlinger, alternating with Michael McColl)), a disturbed man whose simmering fury ignites when his wife commences an affair.


As in all good mysteries, the truth emerges through multiple perspectives. The broadest and most illuminating take comes from the town’s resident storyteller, a gentle and perceptive Native American, Billy Mound of Clouds (Leandro Cano), whose mind drifts to mystic places and whose “magic” feet regularly alert him to the troubles of his friends and neighbors.


The other ethereal voice is Lisa’s own. Lisa is a suicide. When we meet her, she’s been dead a day and is speaking to us from some supernatural space for the non-living. She explains why she ended her own life, despite loving her child and caring deeply for her lover, Eric (Eric Hunnicut),


The most disquieting scenes take place between the volatile Samuel and his orphaned stepson Isaac (Tomek Adler). As he creepily appears to shave the hair from his body, the unstable widower discloses to the uncomprehending boy his mother’s infidelity and the identity of his biological father.


The fourth person of note in the drama is Samuel’s mother, Samantha (Barbara Tarbuck), a woman, now elderly, who’d struggled to raise 11 children, including Samuel. She’s there to tell us he was a weird one right from the start.


Much of the writing is lyrical, and in the case of Billy, a TV addict who peppers his reflections with references to Law and Order and the like, wryly entertaining. Cano, who originated the role in 2012, seems born to play it.


Under Chris Fields’ direction, Puette, Tarbuck and Herlinger also do fine work. Herlinger is so convincingly threatening that during his monologues one finds oneself fearing for the safety of the boy.


The problem with the play is its inclusion of scenes in a bar that don’t really go anywhere. A guy named Matt (Ian Merrigan, alternating with Garrett Hanson) yaks endlessly about his strange dream. His girlfriend Maddie (Jessica Goldapple, alternating with Beth Triffon) shares a childhood sexual experience that culminates with her parents’ dismissive response.


Johnson’s intent seems to be the broadening of her dramatic canvas into a more sweeping portrait of a hard-living community in which falls are commonplace and ubiquitous shadows roil everyday lives. But whereas the stories of Lisa and Samuel and Samantha are immediately gripping and effectively charge the narrative with momentum, the barroom sequences feel like dramatic digressions — a sideshow whose interruptions prove costly and achieve little more than undercutting that vital dynamic.


The Echo at Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 and 7 p.m.; through Oct. 18. (310) 307-3753, Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.