Speed Kills

Only a darned good writer could turn the subject of methamphetamine addiction into a spirited comedy romp. The Abandoned Reservoir, now onstage at the Bath House Cultural Center, is evidence that Stuart Litchfield was such a writer. It's a shame he's not around to hear the laughter and applause. Litchfield, a Dallas actor and playwright, died of a heart attack last summer at 40. He had just begun to find his voice, with local productions of his plays The Pain Game and Drama Queens earning critical praise.

With The Abandoned Reservoir, being given a splendid production by the Ground Zero Theater Company, it's clear that Litchfield was really onto something original. He dared to set his comedy in a squalid subculture that doesn't get a lot of attention from the hoity-toity M.F.A. crowd. Litchfield's characters--down-and-out small-time drug dealers in small-town Kansas--are so low on the societal food chain they make trailer trash look like country-club parvenus.

The play is a dead-on funny take on the kinds of dirty-legged gals and pot-smoking yahoos we usually see getting dragged off in cuffs on episodes of Cops. Litchfield's writing shows an affectionate appreciation for the unintentionally funny patois of Springer-lovin', tough-cussin' rednecks. "Fuck you!" screams the mother in Reservoir. "I did not eat all them Pop-Tarts!"

This play also is wise enough to serve as a send-up of family dynamics and the confusing ebbs and flows of loyalty between family members when a parental figure is abusive or unavailable. It's a little like The Osbournes with a better script, but without the money and the upscale accoutrements.

Reservoir's raggedy family consists of frowzy Aldeen Dingus (played with all-out scary-comic abandon by the wonderful Lulu Ward), her IQ-deficient boyfriend George (Wm. Paul Williams), her elderly mother, Wilma (P.L. Moore), and her sober and thoroughly disgusted teen-age daughter Dusty (Jenny Wood), who just wants to escape her hellhole of a home life. Unseen but much discussed throughout the proceedings is Dusty's birth-father, away in the pen doing life for a quadruple murder.

Dusty, named after angel dust, Aldeen's favorite hallucinogen, has staked out the sagging living room couch as her island of refuge in the chaotic household. Curled up against a shaggy sofa-throw depicting dogs playing poker, Dusty listens to the oldies R&B station and pores over her giant volume of Shakespeare. She dreams aloud of a career on the New York stage, where she imagines mounting an "all-fat version of Midsummer Night's Dream." Her best friend, the brooding, troubled Zulu (Nadir Akram), drops by at odd hours and lets Dusty cluck over him like a mother hen. Zulu's own father is so violent that Dusty's noisy house is considered a safe haven.

Act 1 finds Dusty stuck home from school, caring for her addled grandma, who suffers from what Aldeen calls "the Allz-hammers." The only way to calm the old lady is to plop her in front of a video, specifically a porn flick from George's vast collection. So there sits Gran, cradling a stuffed cat, occasionally calling out, "More lesbians!" when the tape runs out.

Aldeen stomps off to DWI school and returns drunk as a monkey and in the company of Trish (Cindee Mayfield), a loser high school friend recently released from her umpteenth visit to rehab. They're soon joined by George, who's promised Aldeen a special present for her 40th birthday.

The surprise gift turns out to be the complete makings of a meth lab, which the greedy threesome quickly erects in the kitchen, much to Dusty's horror. Aldeen couldn't be happier. All her dreams will be realized, everything she's seen in "pyramid schemes and infomercials," she says, if they can cook up big batches of speed and sell it to the users who lurk down by a dried-up reservoir on the edge of town. Aldeen declares herself the CEO of the operation and suggests naming the business "Meth for Less."

Of course, the plans disintegrate. As addicts themselves, George, Aldeen and Trish can't keep from taste-testing the product. The scene where they dig into the little pyramid of speed, getting tweakier and more paranoid by the second, is fall-down hilarious. But in the corner of the sofa cowers Dusty, watching her mother and the other two snort white powder. The young girl's presence adds a powerful layer of pathos to the scene, making it more than simply a broadly comic situation.

Things get darker and funnier in Act 2. Zulu and Dusty concoct a runaway scenario that involves stealing some of the speed. George, Aldeen and Trish get higher than Sputnik on an especially strong batch, and one of them OD's. Grandma rouses from her porn-watching, thinking just clearly enough to help the kids out of a dangerous predicament.

Litchfield's script generously gives each character a big moment. Each is funny in its own way. Dusty provides a sort of Dingus family history of woe, including several mentions of a transgendered aunt named Lola Jean (formerly Larry). Like her, Dusty wants to move far away and change her name to disassociate from all things Dingus. "The only place you find the Dingus family name is in the Metro section under 'recently indicted,'" she whines.

Trish, dragging around in old jeans and a dung-colored T-shirt, sits down with Dusty for a few minutes and declares that she prides herself "on being a connoisseur of illegal substances" and lives only to get drugs and use them. As she ticks off her miserable life of overdoses and comas, she casually scrubs her armpits with a kitchen washrag, as if a ritual ablution could erase some of the pain.

Aldeen, decked out in ho-clothes and wobbly boots, shows up from her night at the honky-tonk with George and zigzags across the floor like a stuporous diva. She gets in a screaming match with Trish, warning that if Trish screws up their drug deal and attracts the police, she'll "find herself in Leavenworth doin' lingerie shows for bull-dyke lesbians with two teeth in their head!"

Litchfield's dialogue crackles with authenticity and the music of language. Litchfield was such a good writer, he worked comic timing into the lines, a skill too few writers of comedies really understand or practice. When Aldeen stumbles in with her friend, for instance, she announces, "I'm trashed...and this is Trish."

That can't help but be funny. It's written in the sound and pacing of the words. As delivered by the delicious Lulu Ward, it's percussive, an assault on the ears by a character whose behavior (not to mention her hair) is an assault on the senses.

Nothing but praise here for all aspects of The Abandoned Reservoir, particularly the performances of Ward, Mayfield, Williams and Akram. Ditto the direction by James Venhaus, who tempers the over-the-edge moments with the quieter rhythms of Dusty and Zulu. Venhaus keeps his actors in check, which keeps the craziness believable.

The set, by Frank Thomas Jr., captures the grimy feel of one of those rusty-pipe houses where the garbage never gets emptied and the closets are stuffed with years of detritus. Costumes by Ryan Mattheiu Smith include some outfits for Aldeen that get laughs all by themselves.

There are many laugh-till-you-hurt moments in this play and a few scenes so sad the heart aches for kids like Dusty and Zulu who will never know what a happy, sane childhood was like. We will never know what other strange, funny, wonderful works for the stage playwright Stuart Litchfield might have come up with had he lived longer. But every one of the laughs in The Abandoned Reservoir is a tribute to what he left behind.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner