Can anyone argue that there isn’t evil in this world? Where it comes from and how it moves through us are perhaps questions worth asking, but regardless of the answers, we all must carry on and make meaning of our lives despite the impossible task of making sense of the evil and darkness that surrounds us — and perhaps is perpetrated by us.
Back County Crimes, the 8th season opener for What a Do Theatre, dramatizes this terrible conundrum without being pedantic or moralistic. Lanie Robertson’s two-act collection of scenes set in the deep south — Love County, and even more precisely, in the town of Duty, population 434 — is classic Southern Gothic storytelling at its finest: dark, poetic, and shot through with scintillating, twisted characters.
This is Randy Wolfe’s third time directing this show, and his passion for the material and steady hand offers his finest, most finely tuned production, full of exquisite performances supported by thoughtful and well-executed technical choices. Wolfe effectively pushes boundaries in this production to create nothing short of a communal catharsis, fulfilling not only theater’s potential, but that of the Halloween season all too often culturally sidetracked.
There is all variety of murder here, both quiet and bloody, by suffocation, rat poison, pistol and the noose, among others; and there are echoes of witch hunts, racial and gender injustice, in a world where even God’s righteousness is challenged while simultaneously being glorified. In short, through witnessing these wicked events in one particular small town, the audience is guided by the very humane narrator, Doc Autry (movingly played with remarkable grace by Jeff Stierle), who represents moral fortitude amid the madness. The viewer moves through the shadow side of humanity and emerges transformed yet unscathed, unlike the many characters on stage.
Wolfe’s choice to stage this production in the tradition of story theater aids this profound effect, as the audience is made aware continuously that this is drama. The cast of 14 plays dozens of various roles in multiple scenes, while simple scenery (Samantha Snow) and props (Thomas Koehler) are used throughout the action in a variety of ways.
The actors themselves, all cast so well they work as a true ensemble, create sound effects and music amid their high energy and at times wonderfully exaggerated performances; and simple, muted costumes by Nancy King appear again and again in different contexts, but are punctuated by high-valence images, such as a pair of red gloves streaming with ribbon to signify blood. Dramatic lighting, often in stark spotlight or warm reds, by Samantha Snow, also effectively sets the tone, as does sound by Wade King, especially the cinematic music of John Purchase.
And it is through the magnificent artistry of the company that more than darkness emerges in this production. It’s the beauty of the bold choices, the powerful delivery of monologues, the chemistry between actors, the magnificent poetic images — such as the backlit group of actors in silhouette to create a lilting willow in the wind — to complement the poetry of language that together create a deliberately transcendent experience.
Back County Crimes
What A Do Theatre
4071 W. Dickman Rd., Springfield
Sep. 29-Oct. 15