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Marked Tree
By Jana J. Monji

On Arthur Tillman's last day alive, he was the opening and closing act. On that July day in 1914, people gathered from miles around to see him become a footnote in Arkansas history as the last man executed by hanging. A new law changed the method of execution to electrocution.

Tillman had been convicted of the murder of Amanda Stevens, a girl of questionable moral standards. Her body might might not have been discovered if a week after her disappearance, her father had not had a revelation. That revelation was so strong that he could not only point to where her body was but describe how she had died from one bullet to her head after which her body was weighted down by rocks at the bottom of a well not far from Tillman's farmhouse. The girl was also about 4 months pregnant, the father possibly Tillman, but as possibly another man, Earl Bolden, who had boasted to other locals of his sexual relations with Amanda. SinceAmanda has already delivered a child, born dead, the pregnancy itself didn't come as a shocker.

In Marked Tree Coby Goss has re-imagined Tillman and Stevens' tale as a tragic love story. The side walls of the cozy Road Company venue are covered with planks, making it seem as if we are entering a barn. In these cramped quarters, a sense of claustrophobia rises as a uniformly excellent cast sensitively creates the population of a small town.

Amanda (Stephanie Stearns) has fled her drunken, abusive father, Green (K.C. Marsh). She takes refuge with Bolden (Lance Guest) who sends her to get a proper dress from his old paramour, Edna (Suzanne Friedline), now the local hard-working whore. He later acts as something of a pimp, offering Amanda's sexual favors to Arthur Tillman (Brad Benedict), the son of his boss. Money doesn't change hands. Instead, Amanda is just part of the refreshment a host might offer to a guest. But Arthur and Amanda's subsequent clandestine meetings in the pine grove leads to their sharing their dreams about escaping this lonely town that has become their prison.

Arthur's dream revolves around the business card a baseball scout gave him along with an l invitation to try out for a team In the background Arthur's co-worker, Pastor Will Sykes (Josh Gordon), reflecting the town moral standards, warns against the evils of big city ways He sees the jobs the new railroad brings al also infiltrating the town with those very evils. Amanda's father works for the railroad and has joined the church as a newly saved soul. He's ready to take his daughter back if only she'll realize the error of her ways.

Though there's a suggestion that Green did more than just beat his daughter director John DiFusco refuses to simplify the who-dunnit factor of this story. Instead, he presents contrasts and similarities and evenly sets up the questions Goss poses.

Friedline's Edna is a voluptuous blonde bombshell who makes Stearns' pale brown-haired Amanda seem child-like. Benedict as Arthur is round-shouldered and heavy-hipped farm boy, his pear-shaped figure exaggerated by Mary Jane Miller's costume design. Ken Zavayna as Arthur's father, Marsh as Amanda's father and Guest as Earl Bolden are big-boned, beefy men, making Benedict and Stearn, with their slender figures appear both vulnerable and adolescent.

By surrounding us with actors, who might appear in the back or side of the audience, DiFusco makes us part of this small town while also emphasizing the suffocating closeness of familiarity. Goss gives us questions, not answers. Did Arthur really mean to escape his tyrannical, ill-tempered father and the humdrum existence on the farm for big city fame in baseball with Amanda? Did he succumb to jealousy and kill her, thinking that she had joined Edna in the flesh-trade? Was it Bolden, fearing that his wife might find out about Amanda and suspect the baby was his, decide to eliminate the problem --or had Amanda's father, driven either by fire-and-brimstone righteousness or by male jealousy, decide to render justice?

For Goss, the actual murder seems less important than the story of thwarted love. Arthur's hopes and aspirations are brutally extinguished by his embittered father. Amanda is passed from man to man trading on the only thing she has to offer ---her body -- for a safe haven. In the small town of Marked Tree, they are boxed in by the rough hewn wooden walls of Brodie A. Steele's evocative set that seems at first homey until it becomes the interior of a coffin that boxed in two young people who had at one time been in love.

Director: John DiFusco
Writer: Coby Goss
Cast: Brad Benedict (Arthur Tillman), Curt Bonnem (Bobby Phelps), John Cragen (Sheriff), Suzanne Friedline (Edna Hattabaugh), Josh Gordon (Pastor Will Sykes), Lance Guest (Earl Bolden), Linda Jackson (voice of Dixie), K.C. Marsh (Green Sparks), Donnie McRae (May Tillman), Ryan Saul (Mr. Theodore), Stephanie Stearns (Amanda Sparks ), Ken Zavayna (I.E. Tillman)
Set Designer: Brodie A. Steele
Slighting Designer: David Flad
Costume Designer: Mary Jane Miller
Sound Designer: David B. Marling
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Marked Tree, The Road Company Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 761-8838.
Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 15.
Based on the Sept. 12 performance.
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