Poetry in the Backwoods
There’s a niche in railroad folklore chronicling dare-devils trying to beat the trains: speeding toward the crossing, leaping on or off the moving cars, racing across the trestle just at the last minute. Usually, for the tale to last, somebody has to die.
Well, somebody does die in Naomi Wallace’s play The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, now being presented by Moxie Theatre. A couple of people die, in fact, and more may follow. It’s the Great Depression and everybody is thoroughly bummed out.
But these aren’t everyday deaths, just as the people aren’t real everyday folks. The play is gripped by poetry. Wrestled down, strangled, dissected and rearranged by it, actually. It’s a real poetry stew, kind of a literary version of that mulligan stew served in hobo jungles.
According to the program notes, this railroad trestle is a actual place in rural Kentucky, complete with recorded deaths and a ghost tradition. Wallace, the author, has used it for poetical reflections on sexuality, politics, sociology and history, each drifting like swamp vapors through the dark shapes of a story tormented by flashbacks.
Wallace actually is pretty deft with images and several of these stick for awhile: The wild girl who wants special sex even if she must remain a virgin to get it. The laid-off and despairing worker afraid of going outdoors and finding he’s invisible. The ghoulish jail keeper with the timid S&M fantasies.
There are knives and glass shards waved round, feathers and apple peelings dropped and a lot of technical steam-train data flourished.
But, alas, it’s largely in vain. No insights tumbled down the prize chute for me, anyway, just bits of melancholy hash, somewhat poetical.
The Moxie production, staged by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, is best defined by the failure of a principal image: Shadow pictures projected on the wall by manipulating the hands. Several people try these but never are they thrown against a decent surface. The shadow image never has a chance to delight or mystify or whatever Wallace had in mind.
The casting is dubious in some cases. For poetical Depression images, see the photographs of Walker Evans. Those gaunt bodies and haunted eyes shame the well-fed and pouty actors here. No real desperation oozes out, just grumpiness, from Michelle Brooks and John Polack as the struggling adults. And Amanda Osborn as the wild child, though often spirited and fearless, always seems to know she has a shower and a ride home waiting.
Ryan Kidd, playing a backwoods boy smacked in the face by female mysteries, inhabits the role with lean, tense confidence, and his presence elevates the work of the others. Jack Missett looks right but hasn’t a clue of how to play the jailer, who wobbles endlessly attitudes toward his accused murderer.
The best thing about the production is Rogelio Rosales’ massive set, a convincing row of train trestles reaching upwards from the dry creek and irresitable to climbers. Luke Olson lights it just fine, within the Moxie Theatre limitations, and Jennifer Brawn Gittings has gotten the costumes as right as necessary.
With a brilliant cast and a major rethinking of flashbacks and the story line, there might be some possibilities in this script. As it stands, though, it needs an audience with a taste for rosy hindsight and wispy imagery.
Moxie Theatre presents Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 28.
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