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Class War

Pat Watson, Carl Savering and Andi Allen wrangle over money, sex and a trailer park in Theatre Quorum's quietly assured staging.

Critics reach a point in their careers when they need to be careful about heedlessly tossing out adjectives to praise a show. If we're not paying attention, we go on autopilot and use a word such as "breathtaking" to commend a staging that floored us with its passion and quality, but about which we can't get much more specific. After all, once a reviewer has been denied the use of his lungs, he needn't bother with the details of how or why a group of artists succeeded, right?

But I'm not just speaking for myself when I call Saturday night's sold-out performance of Boom Town in the Mesquite Arts Center's Black Box breathtaking, and I'm being literal. There were moments, especially during the second act of Theatre Quorum's exquisitely understated production, when you could sense the audience was almost frightened to make a sound as it waited for an actor to deliver the next line. Occasionally, someone couldn't take the roaring silence anymore and emitted a small, nervous laugh that caused others to look around.

Such stillness is rarely a sign of boredom in the theater. When audiences truly want to escape what's happening onstage, chairs creak, shoes shuffle, wrappers crinkle, and sighs are released politely but slowly. In the case of Boom Town, I don't want to imply there are any extravagant effects waiting to whisk you away to another universe. In design, Jeff Daniels' script is the simplest of dramas about domestic unrest--there's even a kitchen sink in it. But veteran Dallas director Cynthia Hestand has cleared a sublime path between the comedy of social commentary and the drama of a psychological thriller (hence, that thin sprinkle of agitated chuckling) that her trio of lead performers walks with impressive discipline. You don't particularly like any of the three characters you meet one summer morning in a kitchen "somewhere in the deep Midwest," but you're never quite comfortable scorning or pitying them, because their shared plight--sex and money have been tangled beyond separation in this altercation--feels like it could just as easily ensnare you if times turn bad.

Such explicit working-class identification is a deliberate mission on the part of playwright Daniels (yep, he's the venerably appealing if undynamic co-star of flicks like Dumb and Dumber and Pleasantville), who more than a decade ago moved back to his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, and started The Purple Rose Theatre Company inside an old bus garage he purchased there. They've so far staged eight plays by Daniels, most of them comedies and all of them dedicated to people who live in places between Los Angeles and New York and whose problems are more prosaic than romantic or creative angst. "In case you haven't noticed, the New American Play can't get a cup of coffee in New York City," Daniels states in the Purple Rose's manifesto. It's not bitterness--the actor garnered an Obie and a string of critical hosannas with playwright Lanford Wilson and the seminal Circle Repertory Theatre--but an acknowledgment that a theater of the community can and should aspire to more than community theater and, certainly, more than pallid retellings of generic urban strife.

Boom Town concerns an adulterous affair between a banker/city councilman and the married co-owner of a convenience store and how the latter's husband attempts to use that relationship for his own financial benefit. It's lean, humble stuff on the page; there's no sex, considerably less profanity than we're used to nowadays and a dearth of violence. All the energy and power in Theatre Quorum's and director Cynthia Hestand's clenched show derives from implication and threat, the ominous hint that something catastrophic and very gory is about to climax this showdown. The hothead Stu (Carl Savering) is appropriately named, for he's stewing over the middling patronage that his store has attracted and over suspicions that slatternly wife Angela (Andi Allen) is boffing Frank (Pat Watson), the smug and somewhat dandified banker who helped them secure a loan and whom they now need for a second mortgage to survive. There's a controversial plan afoot to develop a trailer park near the couple's business, a potential population they believe would bolster their clientele. Frank sits on the city council that's about to either approve or nix the park. Knowing this, Stu believes it to be a particularly appropriate time to confront Angela and her lover about their tryst. Unfortunately, his uncontrollable temper intervenes and turns a blackmail plot into a mini-terrorist campaign around his very own kitchen table.

Director Hestand is smart to underscore the connection between affluence and sexual satisfaction--and, conversely, blue-collar struggling and bedroom dissatisfaction--that Daniels' play continuously draws. "With everything you have, I don't know why you're fucking my wife," Stu tells Frank, and instantly we're not sure where the source of jealousy lies for him. Frank, meanwhile, gains pleasure from the perception (much of which turns out to be fallacious) that he has decisive influence over the livelihood of Angela and, by extension, Stu. Championing a trailer park would make him a virtual lone wolf on the council, because the sentiment of the city's elite is that they don't want "those kind of people," the kind that Stu and Angela would serve, in the area. She's simply itching to flee a marriage that's turned loveless and brittle from constant money problems; whether or not the trailers come along to sustain their store, she has different ideas that involve Frank transporting her to a more comfortable life.

Much of the impact of Theatre Quorum's Boom Town lies in its perfectly targeted casting. Each of the actors onstage here walks, talks and looks exactly the type the playwright envisioned for his characters. I don't think I've ever seen Andi Allen in a dramatic role before, and she's terrific. There's nary a whiff of white-trash caricature surrounding her disappointed schemer, just tired, mascaraed eyes framed by blowsy dyed-blond hair and the occasional weak smile when she thinks fortunes may turn her way. Pat Watson appears younger than Allen by several years, but the actor turns this to his benefit; he's callowness and vanity itself in hair colored black to match his expensive dark suit. He has attracted cash and influence in his professional life with nary a callus on his slim pale hands to show for it--in other words, a briefcase-carrying symbol of much of what chaps the hide of Carl Savering as Stu. With shaved head, flannel shirt and work boots, the burly Savering could simply stand there silently and you'd believe he's a small-business owner who's ready to randomly kick your ass out of dissatisfaction with life. Fortunately, when he does open his mouth, and that theatrical voice ricochets against the high walls of the Black Box space, Stu's anger never veers into the kind of grand, psychotic villainy that another performer might strive for while tormenting his co-stars. Savering keeps it simple, and because his performance suggests a deep storage of frustration, he keeps the audience anxious about his next move. Thanks to Theatre Quorum, Boom Town is a place where cuckoldry and debt are perfectly justified triggers for homicidal rage.


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