MARKED TREE, Seanachai Theatre Company, at the Theatre Building. Playwright Coby Goss does an excellent job of extrapolating from historical accounts of the 1913 murder of a pregnant 19-year-old in Arkansas that resulted in the state's last sanctioned hanging. His characters, many of whom had the motive and opportunity to commit the crime, are distinct and memorable, and he creates a looming air of menace in the Arkansas town: even the most banal interactions are potentially significant in the face of the murder we know will take place. A quick-tempered field hand who lusts after the girl, a ruffian who once killed a man, the abusive father she tried to escape, and the timid baseball player who thinks her purer than she is--all fall under suspicion in this crisply structured narrative, which despite an occasional reliance on stock rural dialogue is rarely less than engaging.
So when the least likely suspect turns out to be the perpetrator in Goss's sketchily written, abrupt climax, it seems that too much energy has been expended in leading the audience off the trail: the sensation is similar to reading a suspense novel and finding 15 of the last 20 pages torn out. And the conclusion is far more cut-and-dried than the disputed facts of the actual case would seem to dictate. The writing here is skillful, the performances are perfectly pitched, and the set by Stephanie Nelson--one of the best designers in town--is splendid, but Goss's disappointing wrap-up diminishes the effectiveness of much that preceded it. --Adam Langer