Reviewed by Tom Lawler
The first thing to notice about Pine Box Theater’s world-premiere production of 25 Saints is its set. As realized by scenic designer John Ross Wilson, it’s a fantastically seedy recreation of a West Virginia cabin outfitted with a dingy couch, a dusty throw that seems to be made of burlap and stained carpet. The lights come on and the soothing sounds of ‘70s AM radio come on.
We next hear a gunshot and the door swings open and two men are carrying in a third man who’s bleeding while a crying woman trails behind them. We’re immediately engaged by this very In Media Res opening and are enjoying the contrast between this violent scene as these men work to stop the bleeding against this mellow soundtrack. And then something even more unexpected happens. The two men pull out weapons and begin finishing off the bleeding man.
Now, it’s time to catch up, and Joshua Rollins’ script quickly recaps us on the recent off-stage events. Charlie (Drew Johnson) and Tuck (Josh Odor) are partners in the meth-making business and have just killed somebody – who’s not only implicated in this same criminal operation but was also attacking the crying woman, Sammy (Caroline Neff). Now it’s a matter of getting rid of that person’s car and corpse before it’s discovered by Sheriff who may kill everyone if he doesn’t get his crystal shipment by Thursday. Oh, and Charlie recently came back to this small town in the Appalachian mountains to clean up this mess and pay off the debts incurred by his kid brother who was Tuck’s former partner and Sammy’s boyfriend before their previous meth lab mysteriously blew up and he fled town to parts unknown.
So, once we catch our breath from the opening of 25 Saints, the next thing to notice is that there’s a lot of story in 25 Saints. And most of it has taken place in the past and off-stage. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it worked pretty well for Shakespeare – but in the case of this play, you’d prefer fewer soliloquies of characters remembering key moments from their past and more scenes with characters confronting each other in the here and now.
It’s also unclear if Rollins and director Susan Bowens are in agreement on what they want 25 Saints to be. Is this work, as the program notes seem to indicate, a kitchen-sink look at the “Forgotten World of Appalachia” examining West Virginia’s natural disaster 50 years in the marking from a collapsed mining industry and and now decimated by scarred mountaintops, widespread poverty and lack of opportunity? Or are they instead more interested in visiting Tarrantino territory – relocating a pulpy blend of comedy, violence and killer dialogue to a less exploited setting?
The most enjoyable moments of 25 Saints seem to favor the latter inspiration. From the prolonged introduction of the menacing and elderly Ms. Duffy (a very witty performance by Molly Reynolds) as Sheriff’s pistol-packing bag woman, to Sheriff himself (Danny Goldring), who doesn’t yell, but is all the more menacing for delivering his lines in a low and sinister GD Spradlin-like register, 25 Saints thrives on these gilded dialogue exchanges between good and evil. Ashley Neal also injects needed energy when she makes her arrival as Sasha, the loopy pizza delivery girl who’s recruited by the boys to help dispose of the body.
The main trio of Charlie, Tuck and Sammy, however, are given less to work with. While it’s Charlie who’s making the decisions and planning the group’s strategy, he’s doing this because he seems to be in love with Sammy – and they talk about escaping to the seemingly exotic locale…of Virginia Beach. It’s unclear to Charlie, though, if Sammy loves him back.
It’s also unknown to the audience what Sammy wants – and that’s a problem since it undercuts Charlie’s motivation for risking his life by coming back to this small town and reduces the audience’s emotional engagement with this story. Having seen the Jeff Award-winning Neff in several productions at Steep Theater, there’s no doubt she has extraordinary emotional range when given the right part. The character of Sammy though starts off as closed-off and traumatized by the opening incident and unfortunately isn’t allowed by the script to move past this.
25 Saints ends much like it begins – with more gunshots as all scores are settled. You may appreciate the symmetry, but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be satisfied by this grim denouement.
Running Time: 75 minutes without an intermission.
At the Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave
Written by Joshua Rollins
Directed by Susan E. Bowen
Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 7pm and 10pm; Sundays at 3pm
Thru March 31
Buy tickets at greenhousetheater.org or call (773) 404-7336.
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