Boomtown | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Stage Left Theatre

at American Blues Theatre

On the night of his high school graduation, Jack Cutler bade farewell to Loganville, Colorado, by riding naked on a donkey up to the ridge overlooking the ruins of what had once been a prosperous mining community and proclaiming his wish to "piss all over" his hometown. Ten years later, he returns to reclaim his roots. Little does he know that the refuge he's seeking is about to be swept away by a wave of euphoria and corruption, and that he will play a part in the town's destruction.

The argument that America was founded on a gamble is seductive. Weren't the early settlers taking a chance? And doesn't the language of gambling permeate our culture to this day? But Steven Dietz in Boomtown invokes American myths of risk taking only to destroy them, refuting our nostalgic fantasies as well as exposing the manipulations of modern speculators out to make their fortune by selling legalized gambling to economically depressed communities. Memories in those communities are too short to recall the promises of those who descended during the gold rush a century earlier and exploited the land and its denizens, leaving them impoverished and ready to be suckered once more by the lure of easy, cures-whatever-ails-you wealth.

Objectivity has never been one of Dietz's priorities, nor is he renowned for his subtlety. His villains here are as blatant as those of 19th-century melodrama: "I'm not a gambling man--they live by chance," announces one early casino owner. "I'm a businessman, and I never lose." And the swiftness with which the citizens are taken in by their sales pitches strains credulity--until one recalls the number of small towns much like the fictional Loganville that have fallen prey to the same snake-oil salesmen. "Just a few slot machines," "only local business," "the money goes to a good cause" are phrases we have all heard, and hear now.

The Stage Left ensemble, under the direction of Sandra Verthein, keeps a firm rein on Dietz's holy zeal, emphasizing the dynamics of the Cutler clan and their neighbors--notably Jack's sister, whose Cassandra-like warnings go unheeded, and his best friend, a humble saloonkeeper who is transformed by gold fever from the town's social conscience into a double-dealing four-flusher. But though the uniformly excellent cast try valiantly, they cannot quell the viewer's suspicion that Dietz--a confirmed ax grinder in a time when most playwrights wallow in mealy-mouthed ambivalence--is dealing off a stacked deck.

Or is he? Boomtown was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company in the midst of controversy over legalized gambling in Denver's outlying hamlets; when completed, it was rejected by a region overflowing with sudden wealth. Life often imitates art, however, and recent reports indicate that what Dietz predicted in his spurned play has come to pass. For all its flaws, Boomtown still provides an articulate, comprehensive warning to those who would ignore the lessons of history, robber barons, and lotteries.

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