Dark forces conspire in the backwoods in Nate Eppler's original drama Long Way Down 

Southern Culture on the Skids

Southern Culture on the Skids

Nashville author Nate Eppler's original script Long Way Down has been undergoing a thorough vetting process. Rough drafts were followed by staged readings, including a trial run at the 2010 Ingram New Works Festival at Tennessee Rep (which garnered input from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn). This first formal mounting of the play has been dubbed a workshop effort, but don't be fooled by that humble designation. This production is well worth a visit for several reasons: Eppler's inventive take on redneck existentialism, a surprisingly well-realized set, and director Lauren Shouse's sharp staging.

With stinging irony, a music-box rendition of The Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" brings the curtain up on the crumbling interior of a rural home — presumably in or near Tennessee, since the lady of the house, Saralee (Rebekah Durham), speaks of a new life in Nashville, which appears to represent the height of sophistication and progress. The pregnant Saralee is a bit obnoxious and suffers a martyr complex that might try the patience of Job. Still, she has a plan — selling the rundown family residence and moving to Music City with her depressed husband, Duke (David Compton).

Where that leaves her little sister Maybelline (Jennifer Richmond) is the subject of nervous discussion, though Saralee seems none too worried. Clearly, Maybelline is a struggling soul, and it's revealed that she's mishandled children at a day care center. She's also on meds, and as we learn much later, she had a violent miscarriage in the not-too-distant past.

Pushing this situation into high gear is Karen (Rachel Agee), apparently a friend to Saralee's other sister, Chanel, who is currently doing time in jail. Karen has embarked on a plan of bizarre and heinous proportions: Spurred on by extreme Southern fundamentalism, she goes on a baby-napping spree, with Maybelline's confused assistance.

Acts of great and frightening hostility follow, and as playwright Eppler's commitment to his Bible Belt mise-en-scène proves, when God is in the house, almost anything can happen — like babies in backpacks stored in the fridge. Or onstage urination. Or sudden death.

Agee's Karen is a mix of Kathy Bates in Misery and real-life murderers (for example, South Carolina's Susan Leigh Smith, convicted in 1995 of drowning her two young sons). Agee is well up to the task, and she's no stage stranger to the spirit of her role's shovel-wielding weirdness and evangelistic intensity. Maybelline is her temperamental opposite — at least superficially — but Richmond's performance is of equally damaged importance, and she sustains the pathos with low-key credibility.

Durham once again provides a vivid, in-your-face portrayal, and Compton is also quite good as the underemployed bubba who knows that there's got to be more to life — despite his inability to figure out exactly what that is or how to attain it.

Theatergoers may count themselves fortunate that the surrealism built into Eppler's pained scenario will keep them at least front row's length from the play's deeper inspiration. It's dark stuff, but it's compelling and well-played — and it packs a serious wallop.

Comedy night

Producer Barry Scott's shepherding of The Next Level performance space at 1008 Charlotte Ave. includes the presentation of 2 Black TV, a comedy revue with the energy and POV of small-screen entities such as MADtv or In Living Color. Last weekend's episode featured Kyle Williams, Jessica Townsend, Freddie B. and Latrisha Talley enacting sketches, commercial parodies and brief raps that boldly engage with racial stereotyping of African-Americans, politically correct language (or rather, incorrect, including the "N" word) and contemporary relationship dynamics. The material and performances in the hourlong set were uneven, but there were some legitimately funny and original moments, and there's obvious potential in the cast of young players. 2 Black TV happens on the second Friday of each month, with the next scheduled performance at 7 p.m. June 10.

Aftermath

Fine performances from Wesley Paine and Megan Murphy Chambers were the hallmarks of GroundWorks Theatre's mounting of the Nashville premiere of The Fall to Earth, which closed last weekend at the Darkhorse Theater. Joel Drake Johnson's brooding drama — concerning a mother and daughter's tense reconciliation over the suicide of their son/brother — offered ripe opportunities for the players' rawly physical characterizations to bring the involving drama to its unsettling and downbeat conclusion. Heather Webber was the third cast member, portraying a policewoman caught in the middle of the lugubrious situation. A. Sean O'Connell provided the thoughtful direction.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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