Tallgrass Gothic overcomes script inadequacies
On Friday, March 30, the University of Puget Sound Senior Theatre Festival 2012 presented Tallgrass Gothic, a 75-minute drama set in the great plains.
Directed by Marissa Miles-Coccaro, the play focused on Laura (Sarah Smith) who is stuck somewhere between an abusive marriage to Tin (Stephen Hamway), and the love of her life, Daniel (Peter Wallerich-Neils). The play follows Laura as she falls further into a fantasy of escape and freedom with Daniel and becomes more frustrated with her husband.
Written by Melanie Marnich, Tallgrass Gothic was first staged in 1999 and is a fantastic tale inspired by the classic Jacobean tragedy “The Changeling.” The play is peppered with wonderful biblical symbolism.
Sarah Smith starred as Laura, and at the beginning of the show, the entire audience seemed to be rooting for the character.
The audience waited and wished for the moment when Laura would finally leave her husband to be with Daniel.
However, as the show awkwardly progressed between scenes, it became nearly impossible to sympathize with this Midwest housewife. Smith demonstrated a first-class portrayal of Laura, but unfortunately the script offered few redeeming moments for the protagonist.
At the end of the play, as Laura fell into her personal hell, haunted by the ghosts of her husband and best friend Mary (Natalie Keller), the audience felt that she finally got what was coming. Unfortunately, the final scene was so pathetic that the audience was left unsatisfied.
Surprisingly, I felt the most sympathy for Laura’s husband Tin and her best friend Mary.
Although Stephen Hamway’s portrayal of Tin seemed awkward and unrealistic at times, the second that he showed his softer side, the audience gained a subconscious understanding of Tin’s desperation to keep the love of his life.
Mary’s story was even more heart-wrenching. Throughout the course of the play, the audience slowly began to realize that Mary was secretly in love with Laura. Natalie Keller’s portrayal of Mary was the most touching performance of the cast. Her drunken goofiness was both perfectly hilarious and endearing. Keller beautifully and subtly portrayed the frustration of watching the love of her life poison herself with two doomed relationships.
Laura’s love interest, Daniel, was played by Peter Wallerich-Neils. Wallerich-Neils’s line delivery was genuine, but the character of Daniel himself seemed to lack depth. Although Laura and Daniel’s relationship seemed hopeful at the beginning of the show, Daniel became nothing more than a dreamlike fantasy that represented escape.
Whether this was deliberate or not, it left the audience uninterested in Laura’s one wish and the driving plot of the story.
Other performances included Connor Kurth as Filene, the hilariously sly and brutally honest “villain” of the show, and DJ Henderson as Scotto.
Kurth added the perfect amount of comic relief to the show, but his character sometimes seemed over-the-top and the Satan metaphors (particularly his continuous use of an apple to tempt Laura) seemed a little in-your-face.
Henderson was the most believable character in the show. He provided honesty, genuine emotion and natural well-timed comedy. It’s a shame that he had the smallest part in the play.
The direction of the show was splendid for the most part. However, directing a play in the round always presents many challenges, and it definitely showed.
Miles-Coccaro’s direction occasionally left the majority of the audience missing out on beautiful performances from the actors. The fight choreography also seemed a bit awkward (which makes sense, when you’re trying to mask fake falls, shoves and throws from an audience seated in the round, completely surrounding the cast.)
All in all, Miles-Coccaro’s production of Tallgrass Gothic was one of the better productions I’ve seen at Puget Sound.
Despite the occasionally awkward direction and a protagonist who lost the favor of the audience early on, Tallgrass Gothic had some truly beautiful performances from a couple stand-out actors.
The play’s strong biblical symbolism also provided some hauntingly accurate parallels between Eve’s struggle and the life of all of us.
Dramaturg Thomas Crawford accurately describes the audience’s moral struggle in the program notes:
“In Tallgrass Gothic, Melanie Marnich removes the Eve archetype from her theological pedestal, and in lowering her to the status of a regular American woman, shows us that perhaps we all have more in common with our fallen mother than we are comfortable believing.”