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Heavy Whodunit

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EARTH AND SKY

Victory Gardens Theater

Douglas Post's murder mystery Earth and Sky is the first work of its genre I know of to compare its protagonist's dangerous actions to the self-destructive tendencies of an alcoholic poet. Taking its title from the Dylan Thomas poem "This Side of the Truth," Post's story of a woman's investigation into her boyfriend's murder makes frequent reference to the Welsh writer's famous, and finally fatal, drinking binges, as well as to Sylvia Plath's suicidal nature--as if these cases of celebrity self-slaughter might guide us in understanding the tragedies we bring on ourselves.

Potentially heavy stuff for a whodunit. But Post, a Chicagoan who enjoyed commercial success with this play last year in New York, has a sense of balance and grace, and he knows how far to take his philosophical conceits before they start to seem, well, conceited. Earth and Sky is a very effective entertainment that cleverly melds its higher and lower aims: evoking the underworld journeys of Raymond Chandler's novels on one hand and the endangered-but-plucky-heroine melodramas of Daphne du Maurier on the other, it offers suspense during the performance and a gently haunting emotional resonance afterward.

As the title suggests, the play is concerned with dichotomies: male/female, reality/illusion, innocence/corruption, materialism/idealism, past/future. This last theme dictates the structure of the play's narrative, which starts with a single event and then proceeds alternately forward and back in time: every scene that carries the plot ahead is followed by a flashback that provides a teasing hint of the tragedy to come.

Thus the poignant and potent last scene, the final flashback, is the one that has set the whole story in motion: Sara McKeon and David Ames, two attractive, emotionally restless young people, meet on a Chicago beach late one night and tentatively pick each other up. This is the beginning of an intense two-month affair in which each provides the escape the other seeks. Sara is a librarian and would-be poet, a gentle and highly educated woman with no spark in her life; David is a restaurant owner, a would-be adventurer buried under his financial obligations. Soon they're talking (in dialogue whose casually philosophical tone defines the lovers' questing natures) of jettisoning their careers and financial obligations to make a new, liberated start together.

Then David dies. He's murdered, actually--and the police investigation into his slaying opens up the appalling possibilities that he was a kidnapper, rapist, and killer himself. Shocked out of her romantic visions, Sara proceeds to probe the case herself. In the tried-and-true tradition of the "how could she be so stupid?" genre, she dives into the city's sleazy underworld in search of clues, putting her own life in danger and causing the death of at least one innocent bystander. Her recklessness is almost as inexplicable as David's death: under the prim, well-read surface of this lady of letters lurks a strange and mysterious beast.

Under Curt Columbus's direction, Post's evening-length one-act moves swiftly and fluidly between the two worlds Sara traverses--one safely lit and the other darkly dangerous--and between the future that may destroy her and the memories that transformed her. Played on a semiabstract set (designed by James Dardenne and lit by Michael Rourke) whose cool, metallic look is enhanced by Galen G. Ramsey's sleek saxophone and synthesizer sound track and John Hancock Brooks Jr.'s trimly tailored costumes, Columbus's staging is smooth and low-key--a bit too much so at the end, when a series of multiple twists bring the play to what should be, but isn't here, a crackling climax. And as Sara, Martha Lavey is a touch too subdued to make us feel the turbulent emotions of a woman set on an encounter with disaster by an instinct she doesn't understand.

But these shortcomings are well compensated by other fine-tuned performances. As a pair of we've-seen-it-all-before cops, John Judd and A.C. Smith nicely balance sardonic comedy and flat believability; Stacey Guastaferro registers the right note of anxiety as a witness whose evidence may be her undoing; and Thomas Carroll is truly sinister as an icy, remorseless gentleman criminal. Most important, Columbus is in tune with the drama's key element--the emotional ambiguity movingly expressed in the scenes between Sara and David, played so affectingly by Andrew May that the question of his real nature becomes a genuinely compelling mystery demanding to be solved.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.

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