James Black Directs A Behanding in Spokane Hoping to Provoke a Response

A man loses his hand. More than 25 years later, he's still looking to get it back (yuck) and goes to, of all places, the Midwest to retrieve it. There he runs into a couple of small town drug dealers (a man and a woman) who see him as the perfect mark. Also on hand is a lonely hotel clerk afraid of loud sounds.

What follows is violence upon violence and yet, A Behanding in Spokane is supposed to be not just funny, but "hysterically funny."

James Black, the veteran Alley Theatre actor, will have a chance to prove that as he directs the Martin McDonagh play on the Neuhaus stage. Black, who first saw the play on Broadway, calls McDonagh "one of the unique voices working in the theater right now." And he jumped at the chance to direct when Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd asked if he was interested.

"I love the way he [McDonagh] takes desperate characters of questionable morality, and he puts them in desperate situations that are filled with physical and emotional violence and gunfire and blood and yet lots of laughs. He also has this uncanny ability to demand that you as a viewer acknowledge their humanity."

Not only is the missing hand important, but so is the prosthetic hand the Carmichael character (played by Andrew Weems) wears.

"It's an intregal part of the character; it's the dramatic action of the play," Black said. "The Carmichael role is a drifter, vigilante type who's been on a quarter century quest to find his hand ... he's equal parts Ahab and Dirty Harry."

It was very important for Weems to work with his prosthetic hand and to use his free hand in more ways than he usually would, Black said.

"You want to be able to show that this guy has been without his hand for 27 years and it's not a handicap. But he is fraught with this sense that something was taken away from him. And he wants it back, and he knows it's of no use to him when he gets it back, but dammit, it belonged to him."

Black hasn't changed the text of the play, but he has emphasized some parts of it that weren't as prominent on Broadway. "I was interested in highlighting a segment of the play that seems to me to be touching on this inarticulate rage that's boiling across a large swath of our country. This inability to accept a changing world ... a desire to cling to a way of life that never really existed."

Much has been made of the fact that this is the Irish McDonagh's first play set in the United States. "An outsider looking at America," is touching on the point that "there is something going on in this country. There is something strange going on in the heartland."

"He didn't set it in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago; he set it in a small town in the Midwest in Ohio."

"It's a challenging piece. It's not by any means a traditional piece of theater," Black said. And he knows that some theater-goers won't like it, might even stomp out in disgust.

"But that's what theater should do. Theater is to provoke and McDonagh is a great provocateur. He is a great theatrical provocateur right now."

"I think it's always important to perform pieces that are on the cutting edge, that challenge the audience. If you do a season of plays and a subscriber comes and he likes every one of the shows then you've done something wrong," Black said. "You want your audience to grow with you."

And one thing they'll learn, said Black: "As it turns out, there's a little hotel room in Ohio that you want to avoid at all costs."

A Behanding in Spokane runs September 1 through September 26 on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley. Ticket information is avalable at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley box office, 615 Texas Avenue, or by calling 713-220-5700.

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