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A CurtainUp Review

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek
By Les Gutman

Wherever there is a present moment, the past is also present, although it's usually invisible. That's what draws me to theatre -- the ability to put different times on stage and see how they collide or how they resonate with one another -- how the past tells a story within a present story.--- Naomi Wallace
In a period when it is fashionable in New York theater circles to speak about the dearth of genuine American voices in the theater and the concomitant arrival of all the young British playwrights, Naomi Wallace stands as both a contradiction and the ultimate irony. A poet by trade and a Kentucky native, she had to go to London to gain attention as a playwright. When she finally made it to New York (with the Obie-winning One Flea Spare, at The Public Theater in 1997 (CurtainUp's review is linked below)), she seemed to have morphed into a Brit herself; her play was set in London at the time of the Great Plague of 1665. With The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, she returns to her roots.

There is never a bad time to receive a "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation, but what could be better timing for Ms. Wallace than to have it coincide with this opening? If there will ever be a right time for her here, now would seem to be it. Ditto this play. Set in the late depression days of 1937, its lyrical story of the unthinkable tragedies brought about by horrifically confused teenagers both "collides" and "resonates" with current events in the booming days of 1999.

The trestle in the play's title is what could be called an attractive nuisance. It affords just enough time for kids to race across it as they hear the train approaching, assuming they don't trip or look back. But there's no margin for error: the trestle has no "sides", and there is no water in the creek below.

Ms. Wallace is a writer with a socio-political frame-of-reference. But Pope Lick Creek does not condescendingly preach. What's wrong with our children? Maybe the answer will be easier to discern through the lens of a parable set 60 years in the past.

Poets make interesting if sometimes difficult playwrights. Ms. Wallace, in particular, has no obsession with the linear. For her, lots of exposition would spoil the exercise; with the juxtaposition of beginning, middle and end, she puts the audiences through its paces. But then again, tough questions don't have easy answers, and a sturdy plot line unencumbered by occasionally overwrought poetics would make art simpler than life.

The key to appreciating Wallace's formulation is to realize what story she is telling. This is not a whodunit. Although revealing the precise "it" is held in abeyance for quite some time, we know almost immediately that it is fifteen year old Dalton Chance (Michael Pitt), a good son with aspirations of college, who is in jail. The intriguing, pertinent question is the one that plagues his mother, Gin (Nancy Robinette), a good mother with an instinctive sense of family-as-shelter: why?

Treating Pace Creagan (Alicia Goranson), age 17 and the local bad girl to whom Dalton is drawn, as the culprit is, of course, a diversion. She is the ringmaster at the infamous trestle, sort of a teasingly randy, not-very-attractive nuisance herself. The last boy she took up with died there; this time she's not as lucky.

At the moment, luck is not in abundance in this unspecified locale (which gives every indication of being within a stone's throw of Ms. Wallace's birthplace in Kentucky), although rage is. Dalton's dad, Dray (David Chandler), was laid off at the foundry and now won't leave the house. He has not even visited his son in prison. Another erstwhile father (Phillip Goodwin) tries to communicate with the boy. Once the boy starts talking, it's clear the man is not listening.

Gin is still working, but she feels the walls crashing in as those around her are laid off. The stirrings of a labor movement can be sensed. So can the barely-checked triggers of violence. Physical intimacy is avoided, for fear of where it may lead. Gin must keep Dray supplied with plates: he feels compelled to throw them, and if he didn't, who knows what he'd do. And Chance is prompted to make good on his name with a girl who doesn't speak or act like the others. It's a perplexing puzzle Wallace has set up for us.

Lisa Peterson has splendidly interpreted Wallace's warp. An energetic, stylish staging (sometimes veering to what one could call "artsy") plays out on the spartan, utilitarian but somehow nonetheless evocative set of Riccardo Hernandez. Scott Zielinski's surrealistic lighting, much of which emanates from below or the side, creates an uneasy, unfamiliar setting augmented by lanterns casting shadows. Yet Katherine Roth's period costumes ground the characters in their proper place.

Although Wallace's words flow rhythmically, they are delivered mostly with a natural elegance. Goranson is particularly direct and immediate, seeming as relevant to the present as to the past. Pitt, making quite an impression in his stage debut as a curious, sensitive, anguished but hormone-driven bundle of adolescence, transcends time in a different way, suggesting timelessness.

The adults have a more complex job, and yet succeed in retaining a certain intelligence in the face of exasperation and bewilderment. Robinette retains a firm grip on Gin's inner strengths, and Chandler remains focused on the inherent weakness in Dray's underlying pride. Goodwin tempers his character's irreconcilable moral outrage with humanity.

Wallace makes no pretense toward lightness in either subject or tone. It also can't be denied that both she and Ms. Peterson sometimes get carried away. Such is the stuff of poets and their interpreters. But underneath the occasional extravagance or mis-step lies a particularly articulate rumination of a very perplexing subject.

CurtainUp review of One Flea Spare

by Naomi Wallace 
Directed by Lisa Peterson 
with Michael Pitt, Alicia Goranson, Philip Goodwin, Nancy Robinette and David Chandler 
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez 
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski 
Costume Design: Katherine Roth 
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem 
New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street (Bowery/2 AV) (212) 460-5475 
opened June 30, 1999 closing date not announced 
Seen June 28, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman July 1, 1999

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