THE JOADS AT HOME
Playwright Randy Sharp’s one act drama takes place during the Dust Bowl catastrophe of the 1930s, when a monstrous drought descended on the central plain states turning fertile fields and prairies into alkali hellpits. Of course, most of us are familiar with Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which followed an American family as they fled the Dust Bowl to equally dreadful privations in California. However, this play focuses on the folks who decided to stick around and protect their farms, for what they were worth. Those who remained tended to band together and form protective units called “Last Man Clubs,” creating a support commune to combine their pathetic resources.
In many respects, the contextual backdrop is a bit of a canard – the history doesn’t really matter, for this drama plays more like a post-apocalyptic family story than an attempt to recall the past. In her atmospheric production, director Sharp strives to craft a mood that puts us in mind of life on some kind of a disastrous otherworld. Spotlights shine harshly in the audience’s eyes as we are seated, an effect determined to suggest dust blowing in our eyes. Otherwise the stage is dim and fairly murky, perhaps suggesting the clouds of dust covering the light of the sun. Characters enter the stage, shrouded head to toe in burqa-like schmatte, looking more like the Sandpeople from Star Wars than the denizens of the Dust Bowl.
Somewhere in the drought-stricken Midwest, a group of people are holed up in a grim farmhouse, living in a desperate despair that resembles nothing more than a scene from The Living Dead. Fearful of the endless dust storms and the lack of supplies, the relationships of the members of the group are a little hard to parse – they might be family or they might just be people who are thrown together like flotsam in the wind.
The Major (David Crabb), erstwhile patriarch of the clan, scavenges for supplies while keeping an eye on his surrogate daughter Wishful Hi (Lynn Mancinelli), a sibylline teenager with visionary powers, which might be the result of her having been raped by wandering thugs. Also living in the home, embittered and brittle surrogate mother Saromybride (Britt Genelin) tries to tend to frail, damaged Pogard (Spencer Aste), who has been rendered insane from the travails of their appalling life.
The family spend their time enjoying merry antics — such as pouring the dust out of their hats, searching neighboring farms for supplies (but only finding bugs), and yelling at each other about their decision not to flee to California. However, into these cozy environs come a pair of seemingly unconnected random strangers, a salesman (George Demas) and a scientist (Brian Barnhart), who take refuge with the family and offer them the chance to “buy into” a newly discovered invention that will (they promise) absolutely end the draught. Is it a con job or could this invention save the world?
The strength of director Sharp’s production is in the staging, which is nicely environmental, with a near-constant atmosphere of brooding menace and desperation that’s enhanced by David Zeffren’s murky lighting design and by Karl Ruckdeschel’s menacingly raggedy costumes. Moody touches are also provided by Steve Fontaine’s cunningly mixed sound design, which mingles eerie windy sounds, and odd hints of Depression Era radio show numbers to create the feel of a ghost story.
The problem is that the play’s script is itself a mess – a pastiche of choppy, non sequitur patches of dialogue that are melded to highly surreal incidents and indifferently rendered characterizations. Ironically, the story would be more interesting if it were told in a straightforward way: The description of life during the Dust Bowl really doesn’t need any ponderously pretentious surreal embellishments to be effective; the bizarre touches ultimately have a distancing feel that prevents us from ever being drawn into the tale.
As far as the actual plot is concerned, few of the concrete incidents make much sense until the strangers arrive at the house – and then the piece turns into a totally different story, one which, oddly enough, puts one in mind of an episode of The Waltons staged in bizarro-world or a dystopian take on N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker.
Performers do the best they can with this often oblique material. Crabb’s Major is an artful combination of cunning and rage, while Mancinelli’s strange little girl is oddly touching, if hard to understand. As the pair of sinister travelers, Demas and Bamhart deftly meld predatory need and shame. Ultimately, though, the writing makes the play so difficult to follow that it’s hard to maintain interest in any of these characters.
Last Man Club serves up some intrinsically interesting historical subject matter, but, sadly, it never quite coalesces into affecting drama – it often seems about as unrelentingly murky as the dust storms themselves.
photos by Dixie Sheridan
Last Man Club
Axis Company at One Sheridan Square
scheduled to close on October 28, 2012 Early closing due to Sandy
reopens and plays March 7-30, 2013
for tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.axiscompany.org