With American Falls, new playwright Miki Johnson has captured lightning in a bottle. Catastrophic Theatre likens it to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, but after mentally riffling through Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Edward Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters, I settled on David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks. But better.
The intriguing, welcoming set sweeps the broad stage, creating five different areas sharing colors of wood and earth, linked by the raw humanity that will soon fill them. The work is a series of interlocking vignettes surrounding Johnson's vivid characters. Center stage is Billy Mound of Clouds, an American Indian quasi-shaman working in a Payless Shoe Store, who's portrayed by Ricky Welch, seemingly born for the part. His powerful but melodic voice resonates, filling us in on the inhabitants of the small town of American Falls, Idaho.
At one edge of the set are two guys and a gal, each relating appalling, hilarious anecdotes that ring with truth. Troy Schulze as Eric, John DeLoach as Matt and Karina Pal Montano-Bowers as Maddie succeed wonderfully in creating the easy conviviality of old friends kicking back. At the other end of the set is Samantha, mother of 11 after a long career of making love under the influence, who regales us with a wonderful story of getting a tattoo plus her calculation of just how many Budweisers she has consumed in that career. Carolyn Houston Boone plays her with a languid charm that is captivating.
The other set elements grow darker, but playwright Johnson finds the humor. She has a knack for the unexpected juxtaposition that makes us laugh or the precise conversational phrase to delight us; she is a gifted comic writer. We meet Lisa, married to Samuel and mother of Isaac, fathered by Eric in an extramarital affair. Jessica Janes plays her, and she finds the rhythm in a story of obesity, recovery, love and death.
The fifth and final set is occupied by Samuel, a betrayed husband helping to raise a child not his. Kyle Sturdivant plays him necessarily as bitter, and he is compelling but grim; there is a theatrical surprise in the denouement that lets us see his range. And young Calvin Parker is excellent in a cameo role as Isaac.
Johnson sprinkles the dialogue with references to television, including many to Law & Order, and these are not only interesting and witty, but, paradoxically, anchor the play in reality. There is a dramatic arc to the work as separate threads are pulled together in an exciting denouement that is fast-paced and leaves the audience as breathless as the participants. We witness, or are told of, suicide, attempted murder, life-threatening danger and the solace of escape, encapsulated into a few short moments and told largely through the perspective of Billy Mound of Clouds, who here becomes an active participant and not merely an observer.
There are characters not seen onstage but referenced, such as Billy's significant other, Gloria, who takes on a life of her own, as well as the town sheriff, and this helps extend the feeling of a small town where everybody knows everybody else's business. The tone of this work is remarkable, as it breathes humor into panic and fear, finds wit in the midst of despair, draws warmth from suicide and sees success in admitting failure. Metaphorically, the golden glow of talent suffuses the stage with its light.
In reality, the lighting design by Kirk Markley moves smoothly from area to area, providing warmth where needed and a darker tone as necessary, and the intermission-less 75 minutes flow by all too quickly. The work is directed by Jason Nodler, artistic director of the Catastrophic Theatre, and he has given the playwright the production she deserves, flawlessly cast and presented with warmth and charm, including the functional, inviting scenic design by Laura Fine Hawkes.
Talented acting and excellent direction bring Miki Johnson's vision of what lies behind the white picket fences of a small town into vibrant life, resulting in a production filled with humor, ablaze with insights and rocking with humanity. This fall, Catastrophic Theatre will produce another play by Johnson, Fleaven, set in a mall, and I'm looking forward to it with eager anticipation.
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