By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Deconstruct the features of Dallas actor Steven Walters and it's hard to believe they constitute the attributes of a great stage performer. There's his voice: high, a little nasal, with a hint of Texas twang and audible hisses on sibilant consonants. There's his chin, strong but soft. His long nose curves downward toward thin lips. Pale brows and blond lashes frame gray-blue eyes. Walters is tall and slim, almost spindly, depending on how well his clothes are fitted for a role. And he has large hands with delicate fingers, which he often thrums against his legs during wordy speeches in plays.
It all works together somehow to make him fascinating to watch. Add those elements to his considerable acting skills and you understand why Walters right now is the most sought-after actor in his age range (late 20s) among the city's best professional theaters. Considered a leading man—and he can be exceedingly handsome, even with those thin lips—he's just come off a run of starring roles at Dallas Theater Center, where he played Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV last fall and had leads in two of the Beauty Plays in DTC's fine productions of that trilogy.
Now he's back as co-artistic director and actor at Second Thought Theatre, the small company he co-founded with other Baylor grads seven years ago and then left to act on TV's Chase and Friday Night Lights and to pitch screenplays in Los Angeles. In Second Thought's black box space at the Addison Theatre Centre (which also houses WaterTower Theatre), Walters is starring in the 70-minute monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), writer Will Eno's strange, sardonic, one-sided conversation about the meaning of life.
Barefoot on a bare concrete floor, wearing a black suit, white shirt, skinny black tie and black-framed goon glasses, Walters does some brilliant talk-jazz with the dissonant chords of Eno's dialogue. His character, speaking directly to the audience in the 75-seat theater, is friendly one moment, hostile the next. Eno peppers the play with bursts of funny, unexpected exclamations. "Do you like magic?" Thom Pain asks at the top of the play. "I don't. Enough about me." And zip, he's onto the next topic. Relating a story about the love of his life, he recalls their first date: "'You've changed,' she said the night we met." And this, about the same girl: "She had a doggedness I found very fetching." Ba-dum-pum.
Pausing the verbal spew only a few times, Walters, sharply directed by Dallas Theater Center company member Matthew Gray, is careful not to indulge too long in the ups or the downs as Thom Pain rewinds again and again to stories from childhood and to moments from a broken romance that has shredded his character's confidence. Punctuating the barrage of dialogue are playwright Eno's bits of theatrical sleight of hand. An audience plant storms out halfway through, causing an eruption of profanities from Thom. Later, Thom pulls a small red box of raisins from his pocket and munches a few. "Picture whatever you want," Thom tells the crowd. "You are free." Until, that is, he forces someone to join him onstage, where he ignores the person, left sitting in a chair with eyes closed, until the play is nearly over.
Thom Pain (based on nothing) asks that theatergoers think—and not just about what they had or want to have for dinner, which is all so many new plays ask. Nothing goes as expected in this performance piece, and nothing is fully explained. Questions are asked, explicitly and implicitly: When does childhood end? How long does the torch stay lit for an old love? Why is Thom Pain not wearing any shoes? And is that glass of water at the back of the stage half full or half empty?
Walters, through all of it, stays in tune with the material and with his audience. Never has it been more tempting to answer back to a direct question from the stage—and Walters could probably work wonders with a moment like that if anyone were ever so bold as to speak up during this show. And never has there been a greater urge to hug a character who seems so distraught. Thom Pain is in pain for much of this play, but he's also eager to teach us things from the hard life lessons he's endured. Like, how to enjoy living in the moment, even if that moment is built around an old joke or a failed magic trick.
By the end of Thom Pain, Walters, dripping with sweat, is close to tears. He has gone places few actors are brave enough to go—namely, onto a bare stage, alone and unshod, to speak more lines than Hamlet—and he's put the audience under his spell.
WaterTower Theatre's artistic director Terry Martin has been itching to do Martin McDonagh's mordant Irish comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore for a few seasons now. He's finally got it up on the big stage in Addison and even hired a nationally known special effects wizard, Steve Tolin, to carry out the play's various and numerous forms of bloodletting.