Photo by Paul M. Rubenstein
After having read Bay Area scribe John O’Keefe’s program notes to his brand-new play, Reapers, and after having seen the play and met O’Keefe briefly following the show at the Odyssey Theater (where he’s directing its world premiere), there’s no doubt O’Keefe is still figuring out what his play actually means, despite a series of proclamations that try, in essence, to convince us that chalk has magnetic properties. That said, he can also stage a riveting production and turn a phrase of dialogue with a kind of epic beauty and chiseled potency in a way only a handful of American dramatists are able to. He demonstrated these capacities not only in Reapers, but also in his brilliant Times Like These (staged at this theater in 2003) —a study of two actors, one Jewish, in Weimar Germany during the rise of the Nazis. In that play, O’Keefe drew a parallel between the atmosphere and policies in Germany following the burning of the Reichstag to the atmosphere and policies in the U.S. following 9/11. Every play O’Keefe writes seems to be about apocalypse.
Reapers, however, is a strangely anachronistic family drama in which O’Keefe has lifted a mid-20th-century farm from his memory and dumped it into a twilight zone 50 years later. That alone is a heavy lift that strains the back of his play. After the show, O’Keefe admitted that in our era of corporate farming, the kind of family farm he’s depicting probably doesn’t exist anymore. And after showing a semiliterate, semiconscious parade of sadistic American rural Neanderthals who live for the single joy of beating each other up and salivate at the prospect of committing murder, O’Keefe says, “Actually, Iowans are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
O’Keefe justifies the various disconnects with the dubious rationalization that the vivid realities he’s created are merely allegorical. “Iowa could be Rwanda, Denmark or Beverly Hills… The play is being performed by ghosts.” O'Keefe tries to link his recollection of a 16-year-old boy and ward of the state, Tom O’Brien (a gloriously tender performance by Eddie Karr), along with the satanically brutal Iowa family who employs him for cheap farm labor, to global warming and natural apocalypses — a killer tornado, to be specific. It’s a bit like trying to persuade us Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is actually about the U.S. space program because it’s about trying to get away. It leaves you wrestling with the distinction between sense and nonsense.
Still, I can’t help myself. I love this man’s writing, and there is actually a biblical case that the bestial behavior of his characters brings on the tornado, which is the best and most simple allegory the play offers. O’Keefe’s production crackles like bacon on a skillet. There’s a Pinteresque menace underlying the scene in which Tom has his first meal with the Fox clan (including Tina Preston’s grandma Hulda, a stroke victim who dribbles from a wheelchair with a vacant stare — “we stuffed her,” her son explains). Father and son (JD Cullum and Alex Garcia) are simply horrifying American gargoyles hanging over the barn door. There’s a sliver of dignity to Stephanie Feury’s raging matriarch, who dreams, with good reason, of planting a bailing hook in her husband’s brain. The whisp of a plot, and only sign of transformation, is a fleeting romance between Tom and Sophie Ullett’s teenage Deirdre, whose mean streak (a requisite for survival) is only half-baked. Give it a few years. Tom Lillard frames the story as the chorus-narrator — a local bum, of course.
Makeup designer Apryl M. Douglas circles some of the men’s eyes in black, so they’re always ready for war. Travis Gale Lewis’ impressionistic set has fragments of walls, hoping that neither the characters, nor we, will get boxed in by a kitchen-sink drama. Or, as O’Keefe says, the tornado has already struck, and these people don’t know it.
REAPERS | Written and directed by JOHN O’KEEFE | At the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | Through September 18 | (310) 477-2055