Our Town?

Another take on anti-gay violence in small-town U.S.A.

A spotlight shines on the darkened stage alternately illuminating five characters: Arlin Jasper, Dodie and Ed MacDonald, Tom Hawkins, and Denny Hedges. Each one utters a piece of a fragmented soliloquy that speaks for an entire town's shock, grief, and disgust. Welcome to Irving, a.k.a. "Anywhere, U.S.A.," a one-post office, one-stoplight town that has been the site of a brutal hate crime: the murder of a young gay man. Local playwright Michael McKeever's drama, which makes its world debut at New Theatre, invites audiences to return to familiar territory while promising to explore uncharted terrain. Like the 2001-02 docudrama The Laramie Project, which made its South Florida debut in 2001 at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company, A Town Like Irving is based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student who was tied to a fence, beaten, and left for dead by two local boys in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. Both plays, which were written around the same time, center on the particularly vicious elements of this crime: the brutal nature of the attack, the victim's slow death, even the tracks of tears found on his blood-caked cheeks are right out of the news coverage of the story.

Both plays pose the question: "How could something so horrible happen in a nice little town like ours?" Call it the age-old paradox of good versus evil dressed in boot-cut Levis and sipping on an Old Milwaukee's Best. The Laramie Project examines the issue from a nonfiction angle. Playwright Moisés Kaufman and his New York City-based theater company, Tectonic Theater Project, traveled six times to Laramie over a year and a half and conducted more than 200 interviews; hence, in The Laramie Project eight actors portray some 60 characters exposing the media frenzy that seized the town when the event occurred. The play also offers a fascinating socioeconomic cross-section of small-town America and displays a staggering array of attitudes.

In contrast McKeever's A Town Like Irving cleverly takes on the same premise and carves out a significantly different fictional perspective: Unlike Matthew Shepard, the victim, Hunter Mitchell, is not an outsider, a student in a small university town. Mitchell, rather, is a member of this close-knit community. The play centers on the grief of this young man's mother, Rita Mitchell -- deftly portrayed by Barbara Sloan -- and a close group of townspeople who congregate at the Lagerhead Bar, the local waterhole/diner. There is one outsider, Jason Bernstein (skillfully portrayed by the playwright himself), but this character is much more about his role as a young gay journalist -- who ultimately bonds with the victim's mother -- than a look at the role the media played in this national tragedy.

Ken Clement, Barbara Sloan, and Kimberly Daniel locked in small-town America
Ken Clement, Barbara Sloan, and Kimberly Daniel locked in small-town America

By placing this very select group of friends and townspeople under the theatrical microscope, by letting us experience the victim's mother's grief, A Town Like Irving promises to explore relationships and therefore delve into the small-town psyche and the psychology of hate. In a 1958 interview, playwright Thornton Wilder asserted that dramatists employ theater to say, "This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action." A Town Like Irving is very much about hurling a heinous crime at audience members and leaving them to find the meaning. Placing this quandary in a quintessential picket fence setting only ups the ante. No one did that more brilliantly than Wilder himself in the American classic Our Town, where picture-perfect Grover's Corners becomes a tangle of human emotion and loss that connected the audience to the stage not by "howdy neighbor" vernacular and rotary phones, but rather by holding up a mirror to our vulnerability. McKeever's script only accomplishes this challenging dramatic endeavor in part, but this top-notch cast, the play's handsome production values, and Barbara Lowery's smooth direction make for an engaging evening of theater.

What McKeever wisely embeds in his plot he doesn't fully cultivate in the development of his characters. Character definition must go beyond putting the right emotions on the right people -- outraged mother, well-liked victim, overly protective deputy, et cetera. For example it is striking how little we learn about Hunter Mitchell. Besides a couple of references along the lines of "We knew he was different/gay ..." and the overwhelming consensus that everyone in town loved him, our understanding of this young man and his mother doesn't go much further than that. A single mother raising an openly gay son in a town with one stoplight holds endless possibilities, yet they go largely unexploited.

This is often the case when trying to scrutinize what makes small-town America tick. When big-city journalist Bernstein comments, "I've never felt so welcome and at the same time like such an outsider," we know we are moving in the right direction, but we don't get much further than that. The play relies too heavily on the oft-repeated question, "How could this happen here?" which by the end rings hollow. It also depends too much on the more obvious trademarks of small-town life, and some of them are downright inaccurate. At one point Bernstein takes great pains to explain to young Denny what the Internet, a Website, and online magazines are, and Arlin Jasper calling a laptop a "fold up computer" sounds like it was borrowed from the Beverly Hillbillies' "cement pond" lexicon. The truth is a very small percentage of the American population lives in a town with one high school, one four-way stop, so in effect a town like Irving is quite an anomaly and we must get beyond hyperbole if we are going to make it something audience members can relate to.

Luckily the play's dialogue and action allow this cast to garner a moving performance from the sometimes-uninspiring script. Barbara Sloan's stage confidence and emotional dexterity always keep the attention on her character. She is one of the most consistently professional actresses on the local scene and can always be counted on to give a superb performance. In the case of A Town Like Irving, this is true for the entire cast -- Michael Vines, as Denny Hedges, uses his comedic talent to carve out a poignant interpretation of this more serious role. Ken Clement adds the conflicted redneck Arlin Jasper to his eclectic repertoire, and Kimberly Daniel and David Kwiat generate the sense of small-town unity as Ed and Dodie MacDonald, Rita's sympathetic friends. Stephen Neal smartly works against the possible clichés of his character, Tom Hawkins, a well-meaning deputy who is obviously smitten with Rita.

Rich Simone's set design effectively communicates the town feel and Greg Sendler's sophisticated original music and sound design make for a striking contrast with the set's folksy vibe. Most promising is the fact that McKeever completed this work and New Theatre produced it in this particularly global historical moment. It reaffirms the importance that on a local level, we see hate beyond the form of white-hooded sheets and home videos of Osama bin Laden, and this is a step in the right direction.

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