In theater, there’s never a cop around when you need one. Such is the case in two harrowing plays currently running at Burbank venues. By the time the police finally arrive in Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living (Victory Theatre Center), we’ve sat through kidnappings, murders, rapes and a young couple skipping out on their motel bill. The story begins calmly enough in the Tennessee trailer of Jeanette (Saige Spinney), a prostitute who reaches out to her interstate-trucking clientele and others via CB radio. While she services a lug named Jim (Kelly Van Kirk) behind some hanging sheets, her 15-year-old daughter, Lisa (Rachel Style), watches TV a few feet away with Jim’s sidekick, Clint (Martin Papazian). Clint’s a buttery-voiced ex-con who wears down surly Lisa’s resistance; we know she’s fatally hooked the moment Clint steals a kiss and the girl hesitates before deciding not to complain to mom.
We also guess Clint has a kink or two when he declines the whore-mother’s invitation to her bed, preferring instead to peek at Jeanette in action through those hanging sheets. Here’s a man, we figure, who’s more at ease impressing suggestible girls; and, before you can say “Charles Starkweather,” Clint and Lisa flee Jeanette’s pleasure dome for marriage and a life of conjugal crime on the road. Lisa settles into a grim routine of trawling small towns for bored, slightly stupid young women who are willing to join her on car rides. Lisa’s passengers soon find themselves handcuffed to motel beds and fed a diet of potato chips and rough sex with Clint. Act 1 mostly unfolds in the claustrophobic confines of these anonymous rooms, where the scruffy feng shui inevitably puts an unhappy bed at the story’s center of gravity. In a way, The Glory of Living is Bug by other means, in which Gilman exchanges homicidal sexuality for the drug-induced paranoia of Tracy Letts’ play.
The law catches up to this fugitive couple by intermission in Alabama, although by then it’s too late to restore our faith in a cosmic justice. And, frankly, much of the interrogation scenes that follow are nowhere near as interesting as those depraved motel moments. Yet with Act 2 comes the awful realization that it’s not Clint but his wife, Lisa, who actually pulled the trigger of his gun, who the postman is ringing twice for. She is the one seen by the authorities as the murders’ auteur, while Clint’s merely considered her ghost writer. This puts her on sticky legal ground, especially since Lisa’s just turned 18 — the legal age in Alabama for getting a driver’s license and dying in the electric chair.
Although most of The Glory of Living’s violence occurs offstage, there is enough onsite bitch slapping and verbal torment to keep us sitting on the edge of our seats while also squirming in them. Gilman’s 1998 play, a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2002, is disturbing yet undeniably sad — not only because Lisa is a blank-faced innocent, but because the people she and Clint have encountered are such clueless lambs. By play’s end, Lisa hasn’t absorbed Clint’s predatory sixth sense about human nature, but she’s adopted a Darwinian view of the world and the weaklings who must be culled from it.
“They was gonna die anyway,” she nonchalantly tells her lawyer (Pete Gardner), in her beguiling, fractured grammar. “There’s just people as are gonna get killed. It’s the way it is.”
Even though it passes on the script’s call for nudity and bruises, this remains a nervy, fearless production, astutely directed by Carri Sullens. The willowy, opaque-eyed Styles turns in a perfect performance, both heartbreaking and repulsive, as the amoral killer who laughs at all the wrong moments and finally learns how to play the toy piano her father gave her — on Death Row. Styles gets strong support from Papazian, who’s thoroughly convincing as a charismatic sociopath — we never know whether he’s going to explode with laughter or rage. Both Gilman and Sullens are to be commended for not exploiting or condescending to the play’s drawling, double-negative-speaking hillbillies who, after all, regard being white trash as something to trade up to.
The cops never arrive in Gary Mitchell’s taut political melodrama, Loyal Women (Theatre Banshee), suggesting an anarchic universe in which individuals must police their own souls. The setting, in other words, is contemporary Belfast, where Mitchell offers an unsentimental tour of the “other” Ireland seldom glimpsed in theater — that of Protestant Northerners, living during the new, uneasy peace, who feel besieged by Catholics and abandoned by the Queen and Country to which they’ve been so loyal. The moral center is Brenda (Rebecca Marcotte), a working-class mother and member of the Ulster Defense Association, the Protestant counterpart of the IRA.
It’s Christmas season, and her husband, Terry (Dan Conroy), has recently been released from prison after serving 16 years for murdering a Catholic woman. Rebecca won’t have anything to do with him, however — seems that after leaving the slammer he made a beeline for the first skirt he saw, which happened to be worn by Heather (McKerrin Kelly), a volatile member of Rebecca’s UDA women’s auxiliary. This is one reason Rebecca wants to quit the group. Another is because her cohorts insist she help tar and feather a fellow Protestant, Adele (Lisa Dobbyn), for having a Catholic boyfriend.
Act 1 is preoccupied with Rebecca’s harsh milieu, which Mitchell establishes in vivid brushstrokes. His characters are not the melodic, dreamy Catholics who people Brian Friel’s plays, but an angry, cornered bunch whose threats and laments ring out in a kind of metallic, jagged free verse. It’s a wonder that Rebecca doesn’t simply go mute from her own “troubles,” which include caring for Terry’s invalid, semi-Alzheimer’s-touched mother, Rita (Rebecca Wackler), while keeping the lid on her own nail bomb of a daughter, Jenny (Amanda Deibert). (Jenny seems to live solely for rebelling against Rebecca, while worshipping Terry.) Jenny is a single mom but treats her baby like an empty pack of cigarettes, fobbing the child off on her mother so she can concentrate (not unlike Rebecca Gilman’s Lisa) on watching television.
REBECCA: Jenny, you’ve done nothing all day.
JENNY: Have I not?
REBECCA: Tell me what you’ve done.
Mitchell amply provides his audience with one of theater’s greatest treats — the spectacle of people in trouble. Problems with Loyal Women surface in Act 2, however, when Mitchell, as though sensing he hasn’t set enough plot wheels in motion, tries to pack too many motivations and conflicts into the final 50 minutes. Without giving too much away, I’ll note that Rebecca must make the play’s Big Decision because of some missing UDA money and, until this matter is resolved, cannot obtain her freedom from the group. (“They keep pulling me back in!” you can almost read in her thought balloon.) In order to sustain this potboiler twist, Mitchell must have mentally infirm Rita momentarily regain her senses — an unconvincing development at best.
This Theatre Banshee production, ably directed by Sean Branney, remains a powerful evening nonetheless, and Branney is blessed with a committed cast whose members handle their Irish accents with breathtaking ease — never a small achievement in small theater. The Act 2 confrontation between the UDA women and Adele is especially nerve-racking and no punches are pulled. Both Marcotte and Deibert stand out as family members locked in mortal combat, very much like their countrymen and women. My one quibble with this staging is that costumer Laura Brody might have clothed the actors more warmly. The play is set, after all, at Christmastime in Northern Ireland, yet most of the characters breeze in and out of Rebecca’s home looking as though they’re dressed for an afternoon of shopping in Laguna.
THE GLORY OF LIVING | By REBECCA GILMAN | Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through December 22 | (818) 841-5421
LOYAL WOMEN | By GARY MITCHELL | The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank | Through December 2 | (818) 846-5323