American Falls from Catastrophic Theatre: Dark, Funny and Rocking with Humanity

The setup: New playwright Miki Johnson creates a series of interlocking vignettes that come together in a powerful finale, creating vivid characters with weakness, fears, needs, audacity and love, in a superb production that seems to have captured lightning in a bottle.

The execution:

Failure is an orphan, but success has many parents, so there may be many ideas about the work's predecessors. 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 and welcoming set sweeps the broad stage, creating five different playing areas, but sharing colors of wood and earth and linked by the raw humanity that will soon fill them. Center stage is Billy Mound of Clouds, an American-Indian quasi-shaman working in a Payless Shoe Store, and portrayed by Ricky Welch, seemingly born for the part, as his powerful but melodic voice resonates, filling us in on the inhabitants of a small town in Idaho, American Falls.

At one edge of the set are two guys and a gal, each relating in turn anecdotes both appalling and hilarious, and ringing with truth. Troy Schulze is Eric, John DeLoach is Matt and Karina Pal Montano-Bowers is Maddie, and they succeed wonderfully in creating the easy conviviality of old friends kicking back. At the other end of the set is Samantha, mother of 11 over 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 this may be the opportunity to alert you that playwright Johnson finds the humor in darkness, finds the unexpected juxtaposition that makes us laugh, or the precise conversational phrase that delights with its appropriateness; she is a gifted comic writer. We meet Lisa, married to Samuel and mother of Isaac, who was fathered by Eric in an extramarital affair. Jessica Janes plays her, and finds the rhythm in a story of obesity, recovery, love and death, for we meet Lisa only after she has died.

The fifth and final set is grimmer, as it 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, although 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.

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 flows 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 gifted scenic design by Laura Fine Hawkes.

The verdict:

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 -- and one not to be missed.

Catastrophic Theatre's American Falls continues through June 9 at DiverseWorks ArtSpace, 1117 East Freeway. For information or ticketing, call 713-522-2723 or visit the company Web site.

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Jim Tommaney