KDT's Ruth Links Dust Bowl Okies to Modern Xenophobia

Where are the great new American plays coming from? Not just from East Coast graduate programs that follow the Paula (How I Learned to Drive) Vogel model, no matter how many of those dreary dramas Dallas Theater Center tries to force upon us. Not from the ranks of hot TV sitcoms whose junior staffers churn out drivel such as New Girl writer Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still and try to pass it off as the-ay-tuh. (Again, a dig at DTC, where Tigers was given three months of performances to try to convince us of its worth. It didn't.)

No, some of the great new plays are coming from right here, typed at back tables in our own local coffee shops and produced on our stages. Over the past few months there's been a strong uptick in exciting new work from North Texas playwrights: Steven Walters' Pluck the Day and Eric Steele's Midwest Trilogy at Second Thought Theatre; Larry Herold's The Sports Page at Fort Worth's Stage West; Matthew Posey's Mean, Ex Voto and Morphing at his Ochre House space. Kurt Kleinmann, Jeff Swearingen, Fred Curchack, Isabella Russell-Ides, Andi Allen, Jonathan Norton, Janice Rose, Mark-Brian Sonna, Scott A. Eckert, Thomas Riccio, Donnie F. Wilson, Linda Daugherty, Brad McEntire, Matthew J. Edwards — all local writers of words for live theater, getting scripts up on their feet wherever, whenever they can.

Now Kitchen Dog Theater is turning the spotlight onto one of Dallas' best playwrights, Vicki Caroline Cheatwood. Debuting as the centerpiece of KDT's 2012 New Works Festival, her new two-act drama Ruth is a beaut and a big career boost for its writer, a longtime KDT company member who has never before had a play done as a fully produced main-stage show there. This production, directed by Tim Johnson, should bring Cheatwood some much-deserved recognition for her talent. It's also a major step up in KDT's support of homegrown work.

Desperate widows: Gail Cronauer and Liza Marie Gonzalez jump time together in Vicki Cheatwood's heartfelt drama Ruth.
Matt Mrozek
Desperate widows: Gail Cronauer and Liza Marie Gonzalez jump time together in Vicki Cheatwood's heartfelt drama Ruth.

Ruth looks and feels like an important piece of drama, with a message that hits deep at America's shifting attitudes toward immigrants, from California's resistance to Okies in the Grapes of Wrath era to the xenophobic new state laws of the 21st century. The play was inspired by the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi, widows who survived by sticking together through tough times. Cheatwood's parallel stories in Ruth have the women straddling two locales in decades far apart, with the second half of the play set in present-day Oklahoma, where a just-passed law makes it illegal to employ or shelter undocumented immigrants. (The play's back story also reflects a sad chapter in Cheatwood's own life. As she was writing her play about widows, she lost her husband Mark Daves, 48, to throat cancer.)

In the first act, Ruth (played by Liza Marie Gonzalez) is the young daughter of a well-off Latino rancher in Salinas, California, 1939. She's just married Malachi (Andrews W. Cope), handsome lawyer and son of Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugees who've gone west and done well working for Ruth's father. Malachi's mother Naomi (Gail Cronauer) hates California, however, and yearns to return to her farm in Oklahoma. Impossible, says Naomi's husband, Eli (Barry Nash), whose relationship with his wife is strained by his drinking and her depression. Casting a further pall over their household is troubled daughter-in-law Ora (Lisa Hassler), widowed after husband Killian (Clay Wheeler) was thrown from a horse. She has nowhere else to go and keeps apologizing for her presence.

The play begins with Ruth and Malachi enjoying their wedding night. As he undoes 78 pearl buttons on his wife's wedding gown, he enumerates the reasons he loves her. It's a sweet, sexy scene, unfolding in a moonlit room above the family kitchen. (Clare Floyd DeVries' multilevel set evokes the unpainted timber planks of weather-worn crates and barns. Guitarist/singer Cheyenne Schweitzer serenades scenes with bluegrass tunes from his own little "shed" stage left.)

The barefoot ghost of Malachi's brother Killian roams the house. "I miss eating," he says wistfully over a cold stove. By intermission, Ruth and Naomi will have been widowed on the same day, their husbands removing their shoes and, like, Killian, hovering behind their grieving wives.

The second half of the two-hour play moves these same characters to Oklahoma City 2007. Ruth and Naomi are homeless and penniless, with Mexican-born Ruth worried about deportation under the state's new anti-immigrant statute. They're taken in by a wealthy do-gooder, Boaz (Clay Yocum), who falls in love with Ruth but loses his social standing in the process. "There is a higher law," Boaz says when he's threatened with arrest for helping the undocumented Ruth and her mentally ill mother-in-law (played as in the first act by Gonzalez and Cronauer).

Anger and forgiveness are major themes here, with an emphasis on anger expressed by those who have plenty against those who have nothing. California in the 1930s passed "anti-Okie laws" (that included Texans and Kansans) making it a misdemeanor to hire or help migrant farm workers. The play makes a powerful connection to history repeating itself with the current wave of Tea Party-backed measures aimed at punishing immigrants.

The eight actors in Ruth are superb, though some were a bit breathless on opening night — nerves seemed to get the best of the leading ladies. Andrews Cope and Barry Nash take their time in their scenes, which better serves Cheatwood's dialogue. Like fellow Oklahoman Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), she has a fine ear for the poetry of the plains and how people from that state sound and speak.

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