Graham's Avenue; Cactus Seed | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Graham's Avenue; Cactus Seed


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Avenue Theatre


Organic Theater Company

Greenhouse, South Hall

Many young playwrights get into trouble because they fundamentally mistrust their own material. What makes the three one-acts by David Wesley Graham, being shown at the Avenue Theatre under the title "Graham's Avenue," so refreshing is the author's rejection of single-complication sound-bite fables and didactic, heartfelt soliloquies. He allows his stories to unfold slowly, and explores the consequences of each revelation.

Even though we guess the secret known to only one of the two mothers in Homecoming, once it's revealed Graham addresses what's to be done about it. By the end of the play nothing definite has been said--for Graham's characters rarely say more than necessary--but we have the proper Texas matron's grim expression to tell us the denouement. The blue-collar narrator of A Bouquet of Elbows takes what seems forever to get to his point, but when his rambling monologue about the day he lost both his girlfriend and his best buddy takes a scary turn, we're grateful for his evasion, which softens our confrontation with a horror approaching tragedy. And though Ernst brings onstage the familiar visage of Adolf Hitler, that most overworked of shock tactics, it's not presented as an answer in itself but as the launching point for a series of questions about the end of freedom and democracy in America.

The quality of this production is uneven, maybe because each play was rehearsed independently. Gary Saipe plays the Gap-wardrobed fuehrer in Ernst much more broadly than he needs to--we know Hitler was a madman, and anyway Graham is more interested in the intellectual content of what Hitler has to say. Moreover Saipe's over-the-top portrayal all but eclipses the performances by Vito P. Gioia Jr. as a terrified history student and John Rodrick as a buzzword-spouting political campaign manager. Debra Ann Miller and Mary Laina make some nicely honed connections in the minimalist Homecoming, though Laina's patrician looks ill qualify her to play a white-trash waif. The most successful portion of the evening is A Bouquet of Elbows. Gary Simmers, reprising his role from last year's production at the Playwrights Center, under the sensitive direction of Tammy Berlin never rushes the pace. Instead he takes the time in this 30-minute tavern saga to win our trust and sympathy before almost apologetically confiding his tale of sexual violence.

These plays, in particular Ernst, are often as opinionated as those of, say, Steven Dietz--but unlike Dietz and so many other playwrights fretting over the state of our society, Graham appeals to our intelligence, a more difficult but more fulfilling route, especially in this unreasoning, arrogant age. With all its flaws, "Graham's Avenue" is worth a look: this is a talented playwright.

Mistrust of her material proves the undoing of Samantha Hadfield's Cactus Seed. This vignette about two lonely youths--orphan Ginny, a truck-stop waitress, and Joe, the son of the abusive town sheriff--might have made a sensitive if somewhat generic little love story. But Hadfield goes and sets her romantic encounter in the isolation of the Arizona desert, where Joe has taken Ginny for sharpshooting lessons.

Anyone who knows anything about guns, snakes, or deserts will roll on the floor at the "dependable" fucking-and-fighting formula in Cactus Seed. Firearms are tossed casually into the sand, where in real life their mechanisms would have been jammed by stray grit. Fucking is precipitated by lying face up on the ground and staring into the sky until one becomes intoxicated (or until one's retinas burn out, if this were real life), and fighting by the convenient entrance of a large diamondback rattler, whose alleged behavior will draw howls from even the most amateur of herpetologists.

A number of fresh possibilities might have emerged from Hadfield's premise, so the standard-issue psychobabble and operatic melodrama are especially disappointing. This debut production hints at some potential--Hadfield's well-selected Ry Cooder-style guitar music sets a suitably menacing tone, and Andy Rothenberg and Dado as Joe and Ginny are plausible death-wish rebels (though Dado's enunciation renders many of her speeches virtually unintelligible). All they need now is a script.

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