That Gothic thing

Whether it's Tennessee Williams' characters clinging to booze-soaked illusions or Flannery O'Connor's thousand clowns spinning their wheels under God's pitiless eye, American literature is rife with romanticized depictions of Southern eccentricity that spirals in and out of pathology. Yet native Southerners have always tended to roll their eyes at stories that work the Southern Gothic thing. Puh-leez, Dixie folk say: Just as the South had no monopoly on American racism, so you can find paranoid lunatics in, say, Stephen King's working-class Maine.

As a firm believer in genre, in baroque exaggeration in the service of heightening and clarifying subtle realities, I say Southerners should embrace their crazy reps. Something in that region managed to produce this country's greatest writers--Faulkner, O'Connor, Hurston, Capote, McCullers, Williams, and on and on--and it must have been experience intensely hot enough to shape such unique perspectives, like iron bent to the will of the flame. The Civil War and Reconstruction made many Southern families close up ranks, sealing every crack and crevice to preserve the illusion that their way of life could be protected from time and social progress. Inevitably in this situation, the air you breathe's gonna get musty, damp...peculiar.

11th Street Theatre Project presents two strikingly different theatrical interpretations of Southern families--one clearly lit, rational, almost minimalist, the other a gloomy, grotesque, Gothic comedy. What can I say? Gloomy, grotesque, and Gothic will probably always win out for me. But if you're a Southerner who's about to go on a spree if you see one more daft Dixie dweller, then 11th Street has a one-act that probably looks more like your life. What makes these shows a reasonable pairing is that they both deal with tradition--how one woman attempts to wriggle out of it as a straitjacket, and how orphaned siblings sickly cling to their own version of it.

The first half of the evening's Southern Rituals is Christina Matthews' Holiday Rules Are in Effect, a Polaroid snapshot of a contemporary Southern family trying to pretend that everyone's not getting on one another's nerves as they sit down for a holiday meal. Daughter Midge (Beth Bush) has just flown in from her new life--a career as a gemologist, a home of her own, a live-in boyfriend--and discovers that not everybody's thrilled with her accomplishments. "I'm a success, not a rebel," she tells smart-ass brother Craig (Shane Beeson). "In this family, that amounts to the same thing," he replies. Her parents (Heather Hunt and Guinn Powell) are uncomfortable with but tolerant of her domestic situation, while pastor-uncle Stuart (Steve Roberts) is comfortable and smarmy with his intolerance. His face-off with Midge does underscore an important dynamic of family "scenes"--it's almost always one member's disapproval/resentment of another member that causes the whole edifice to crumble. The others begin as embarrassed witnesses before they become participants.

Director Debbie Davis orchestrates some great touches in Holiday Rules Are in Effect--the way the shouts of the men, offstage watching a football game on TV, punctuate and comment on the after-dinner conversation of the women. But overall, she's elicited performances that are carpaccio-thin--not bad, but nothing seems to be going on underneath the surface of these performers, several of whom (especially Guinn Powell and Shane Beeson, who might be the most magnetic one onstage here) are capable of making strong impressions on an audience. We could possibly chalk this up to Matthews' script, which feels more like essay than short story, sketch rather than painting. Most of the actors are handed roles and never really evolve in them. Melinda Mills does a nice turn as the pastor's timid wife Tilly, and she does wind up gathering the courage to take a stand at the play's close, but we saw that one coming from her opening lines. There are a lot of truths spoken in Holiday Rules Are in Effect, but most of them feel self-evident.

Coming up next is Barbara Macchia's Red Sedum Creeper, featuring a family that I hope, for your sake, is not immediately recognizable. And yet, as I said before, rococo can be revealing. If you stare hard at the lines in all those extravagant swoops and swirls and curlicues, eventually, human shapes will emerge (assuming the playwright has done her job).

Director Kevin Grammer steers the evening's more satisfying second half, lit by great light guy Bryan Miller, who casts long shadows on the back wall. It gives the whole play an appropriate naughty night-time feel, like kids who have snuck out of their bedrooms after the parents have retired to play games under the moon. In effect, that's what the siblings in this story are doing--three grown sisters and their grown brother, locked in that endless loop of squabbling that has united siblings since Cain and Abel. There's panicky David (Kevin Keating), tense and fragile Ellie (Lea Barron), tough and impatient Kay (Lisa Cotie), and flighty, perpetually amused Laney (Jeanette Chivvis). This family has rules and roles just like the one in Christina Matthews' script, but they're basically making them up as they go along. I'm going to refrain from giving a plot summary here, because the source of their rituals unfolds slowly throughout the course of the one-act, and it turns out to be different from what you expect.

All the actors manage to strike the right tone of hopeless humor, of an unconscious desperation to find meaning in past tragedies by reenacting them, but the real find here is Lea Barron as Ellie. Hers is, essentially, a stock role--the irreparably damaged, child-like Southern daughter. But Barron serves us that familiar menu item like nobody had ever cooked it up before. She's the anchor of anguish in this play, the one who gives resonance and depth to the play-acting exorcism. If the others seem unwilling or unable to fully grasp the pain behind these games, Barron can't escape it. The Red Sedum Creeper of the title is her sorrow, curling and twining until it engulfs her whole body.

Southern Rituals runs through May 29. Call (214) 522-PLAY.

New York City has long been considered America's theatrical mecca, but there are discontented rumblings from the faithful all across the country: Must we uproot ourselves and struggle in a crowded, expensive city to create and produce innovative stage works of national prominence?

David Goldman of the Eugene O' Neill Center created the National New Play Network, in part, as a response to his feeling that New York has too long dominated the process of generating American plays. The Network consists of a string of small theater companies in cities that have distinguished themselves with a history of staging new plays. Kitchen Dog Theater joined last May; they have been sharing scripts, information, and resources with other network members, with the goal of sustaining a national support system for emerging theater artists, especially playwrights.

"The traditional system of play development is, it starts off in New York then moves to a midsize regional theater then a small company and then a community theater," says Kitchen Dog managing director Meghan Saleebey. "It's a way of saying we want to create works all across the country...The theaters [in the network] are actively committed to the idea that to reinvigorate the American theater, you have to have a formal way of finding and supporting new playwrights. David Goldman traveled around the country and looked for theaters with a history of taking risks, and a younger, urban audience base. I think it's an honor to be asked."

As part of its commitment to the network, Kitchen Dog presents its First Annual New Works Festival, featuring one full main-stage production and seven staged readings of scripts that were submitted to the Dog. Artistic director Dan Day helms the world premiere of SMU theater grad David Schulner's Isaac. Like Undermain associate and SMU grad Cameron Cobb's recent Didymus, Isaac takes a Bible story (Abraham and Isaac) and uses it to examine the contradictions of faith. During the pair's journey through the desert to Mount Mariah, where the son will be sacrificed, Abraham and Isaac's lives unfold in a series of flashbacks. Satan makes several appearances, reminding them of the historical import of their journey, but director Day says the playwright's preoccupation is really with a 20th century atrocity.

"David Schulner is Jewish, and he's grappling with his faith and the Holocaust here," Day says. "My understanding is, David has this sense that in a lot of Holocaust literature, because of the faith of the Jews in Germany and their ideas about being the chosen people, that they believed such a thing [as the Holocaust] was unthinkable. There was a lot of denial or blindness as Hitler was gearing up. No violent resistance was ever organized. People went to their deaths believing that God would not let this happen to them. On the one side, faith is a vital part of being human. But it can also lead to fanaticism and violence and blindness."

As far as the staged readings go, two Dallas playwrights will be represented. Kitchen Dog member Tina Parker will direct God Goliath, a script by Theatre Quorum co-founder Angela Wilson that incorporates the life of Harry Houdini with issues of science and technology and, specifically, the politics of breast-cancer research. Fellow Dog Tim Johnson directs a reading of Donald Fowler's Peggy Lee on the Midway, a hallucinatory, consciously poetic look at an incestuous relationship between a father and a daughter that culminates in a crippling accident at an amusement park.

Whew! Grand themes, noble ideas, nontraditional approaches. It's the kind of stuff The New Play Network (and Kitchen Dog's associated New Works Festival) was created to showcase. Meghan Saleeby sees the goal as nothing short of creating a new American theater aesthetic. "Whether old or young, these new voices reflect a movement."

Kitchen Dog presents The First Annual New Works Festival May 22 through June 13. Call (214) 953-1055.


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