Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Celebration Theatre at The Lex
Extended through April 2
Teenage romance meets Southern Gothic in Eric Rosen’s intriguing and quirky play, based on the novel by Jim Grimsley and directed by Michael Matthews.
The piece is set in a deeply deeply repressed and religious small town in North Carolina, circa 1970. The action centers on Nathan (Matthew Boehm), a high-school boy whose family has just settled in the area. His mother (Elizabeth Dement) is decent, loyal, resigned — and somehow beaten down. His father (Jim Hanna) is a surly, sodden guilt-ridden drunk on the weekends but sober and hard-working during the week.
Nathan is a “good boy:” docile, shy, well-mannered and good in school. Beneath the surface, however, he’s wary, watchful, and seemingly impassive, as if waiting for someone else to make the first move. That someone soon appears in the guise of eager and extroverted farm-boy, Roy (Randall Ray Clute), who lives just across the road. Roy is clearly interested in Nathan, and aggressively pursues his friendship by suggesting that they study together at night after their chores are done.
Their talk may be about English composition and algebra, but it rides on a wave of mounting sexual tension, eventually leading to fumbling oral sex. Their early scenes are tender and sweetly funny, for they are too naïve and unsophisticated to have a context or a language for their growing love. Their romantic rhetoric never goes beyond, “I like you… a lot.” Then, suddenly, Nathan’s sexual aggression is aroused, and he savagely and ruthlessly mounts Roy, who is confused and disturbed. “Who taught you to do that?” Roy demands. “Nobody,” Nathan says, insisting he thought of it by himself. Roy is not convinced.
Meanwhile, Roy has introduced Nathan to his friends: Randy (Craig Jorczak) is a good-natured scaredy cat whom the others torment by playing on his fears, and Burke (Billy Evans) is a sadistic bully who threatens to throw Nathan off the railroad bridge where they sometimes hang out.
On the last weekend of the summer, Roy suggests that the four of them go on a camping trip. He leads them to an abandoned and decaying mansion deep in the woods, which he’d discovered in his wanderings. In the deserted and dilapidated mansion, matters turn darker, more violent, more mysterious, and, alas, more confusing. There’s a strange bloody hand-print on the wall. Nathan’s dark secret becomes more troubling; there are inferences of child sexual molestation, a possible rape and murder, and a possible resurrection. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate dreams and memories from the realities of the moment.
For much of its length, Rosen’s script is sharp, perceptive and clear, but in the last half-hour, it grows murky, freighted with intimations and implications. It’s increasingly difficult to find our bearings. And the wish-fulfillment ending, reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, seems rather a let-down after the intensity of what has gone before.
Director Matthews provides a rich, perceptive production, that is amplified with the hymns of the deeply religious characters. Boehm does a fine job of suggesting the emotional turbulence beneath Nathan’s impassive exterior, and Clute provides Roy with ample eager-beaver charm. Dement and Hanna bring a subtle reality to the troubled parents, and Jorczak and Evans give us sharply etched portraits of the other two boys. Stephen Gifford’s handsome atmospheric set contains a skewed picture frame that looks out on a gnarled and tangled forest.
Celebration Theatre at The Lex, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Extended through April 2. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.