Like fellow Oklahoman Tracy Letts (of August: Osage County fame), playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood has a good ear for how people in that state talk to each other. Plain-spoken, yes, but with a certain poetry to the flow of everyday speech.
She's lived in Dallas for many years, but Cheatwood has roots in Oklahoma that go back a long way. She mines some family history and that Oklahoma patois in her beautiful new play Ruth, now playing as the centerpiece of Kitchen Dog Theater's annual new works festival. In Ruth characters from Oklahoma exist in two time frames. In the first act, they're Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and settling uneasily into life as California farmers. In the second act, they're down-and-outers in their home state in this decade, fighting poverty and bigotry as Oklahoma passes laws that punish immigrants and the poor.
It's a powerful play with deeply moving messages about survival, acceptance and forgiveness. Cheatwood says she was inspired by the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi, two widows who form a lasting friendship. In the play, they're portrayed by Liza Marie Gonzalez and Gail Cronauer, with dead husbands played by Andrews W. Cope and Barry Nash, floating like satellites around their grieving wives (if the men are barefooted, they're the dead ones).
Directed by Tim Johnson, the production is Cheatwood's first big mainstage show at Kitchen Dog, where she's been a company member for years. They've done right by her, creating a mammoth multi-level set designed by Clare Floyd DeVries that serves as the farmhouse in the first half of the play and as both a homeless shelter and multi-story mansion in the second. Off to the side in a bare-plank "shed," musician Cheyenne Schweitzer plays guitar and sings Woody Guthrie-style tunes between scenes.
Ruth looks, sounds and feels like a major piece of new drama. The first act, with its bleak Grapes of Wrath scenario, is full of magical realism as it takes a bride and groom from the joy of their wedding night to the tragedy of his sudden death. With its more political focus, the second hour of the play parallels the xenophobic laws passed in California during the Dust Bowl to try to keep jobless Okies (and Texans) from migrating West with the current Tea Party-inspired legislation aimed at Mexican immigrants.
Placing the same set of characters in Ruth in different decades is a writerly convention that works just fine. The actors make the transition through some simple but effective shifts in attitude and costume. But 1930s Ruth is just as feisty and independent as the 2007 one. We see the connections clearly.
All the performances in this show are strong. Gonzalez and Cronauer, as Ruth and Naomi, are a fiery double act, carrying off some blistering arguments before their characters finally realize they need each other to survive. Andrews Cope, one of Dallas' best young actors, brings a naturally sexy oomph to his wedding night scene with Ruth in the first act. One by one his character, Malachi, unbuttons the pearl fasteners on Ruth's long wedding dress. With each button, he tells her something he loves about her. Cheatwood's writing really sings in that sequence.
As in the Bible, the Ruth in this play finds new love with a wealthy, compassionate man, Boaz (played wonderfully by Clay Yocum). God and a good playwright can sometimes write a powerful second act for a life changed by tragedy.
Here's the lineup for the staged readings that also are part of Kitchen Dog's new works festival:
PupFest features scripts by young writers from the Playwrights Under Progress program, co-produced by the Junior Players. 1 and 4 p.m., Saturday, June 9.
The Singularity by Crystal Jackson follows a single woman determined to get pregnant over a three-day weekend. 1 p.m., Saturday, June 16.
Oh, My Man by Meridith L. Friedman tackles the touchy subject of cross-dressing as a wife discovers her husband of 25 years likes to wear frilly frocks when she's not looking. 4 p.m., Saturday, June 16.
Tomorrow in the Battle by Kieron Barry is a tale of obsession and betrayal among London's upper classes. 7 p.m., Sunday, June 17.
Ruth continues at Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival through June 23 at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Call 214-953-1055 for tickets.
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