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Aurora dives into ‘Trestle’ with a solid performance

By John Angell Grant Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday January 12, 2002

American playwright Naomi Wallace is the winner of several prestigious literary awards, as well as a 1999 MacArthur “genius” grant. Despite these accolades, however, the 41-year-old writer still has difficulty finding theaters in the United States willing to produce her dark and dense poetical, political plays. 

Much of Wallace’s work, therefore, has premiered at theaters in England during the last decade. One exception is “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek,” which stood out as a highlight of the 1998 Humana Festival of new plays sponsored by the Actors Theater of Louisville. 

On Thursday, Berkeley’s soulful Aurora Theater took a breath and jumped into the deep water with a solid local production of “Trestle” as the company’s second show in its new performance space on Addison Street. 

Set somewhere in backcountry America during the 1936 Depression era, the play is built around the prancing and preening of two teenagers – a boy and a girl – who loiter near the train trestle that runs over a creek.  

The two spend much of the play trying to psyche themselves up for a game of chicken that will entail jumping onto the tracks and running across the creek trestle just ahead of the arriving train. 

The story is told in a series of short scenes, varying in location. At the train tracks, the boy Dalton (Ian Scott McGregor Jurcso) and the girl (Jennifer Wagner) test their resolve for the game of chicken, at the same time warily circling each other and their burgeoning friendship. 

She is bolder than he in most arenas, including sex and talk, and is able to control some of his behavior through intimidation. Highly intelligent, she also appears to have a screw missing. The two rehearse the starts, stops, potential miscues and emergency procedures that might be part of a race with the train. 

Alternating scenes show the boy’s home life with his parents – a depressed, unemployed father (Don Reeves Hiatt) and a mother (Jessica Powell) trying not to fall victim to a loss of hope. 

A third set of alternating scenes takes place slightly in the future, with the boy incarcerated in a jail cell, after some initially unexplained event has occurred. Here he endures the teasing of a sadistic older jailer (Jack Powell). 

Director Soren Oliver has elicited some good work from his actors. Wagner creates the distinctive performance of the evening as obsessed, driven, edgy, manipulative, not-quite-all-there teen tomboy Pace Creagan.  

When Wagner cocks her head and listens carefully to the sounds of a different drummer, you can almost hear the music. It’s a fascinating performance. 

Jurcso is appropriately fidgety and indignant as the nervous adolescent boy she bosses around. Jack Powell is a complicated jailer, part sadist, part angel of redemption, needling his jailhouse charge 

while living in a pained world that is haunted by the memory of his dead son—a relationship he remembers for its distinctive emptiness. 


As the boy’s parents, Hiatt and Jessica Powell live in a relationship devoid of joy, except for one striking moment when memories of their early days light up their spirits for a short time, before darkening 



Powell’s performance at times seems not quite able to capture the range of compassion, wisdom, experience and despair that this strong mother character calls for. 


“The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” is a love story, of sorts, but one set very self-consciously in a world of economic desolation. The characters in this play have intelligence and ability, but zero in the way 

of opportunity. 


In this context, two ingenious school science projects that the teens create take on a tragic significance. Social and economic stagnation hang over Pope Lick Creek like a plague. 


In the end though, for me Wallace’s play doesn’t quite overcome the separateness of its two halves. The fascinating, unhealthy love story between the two teens seems grafted onto the larger 

environment of severe negative economic circumstances. The graft often feels arbitrary, not part of a deeper root in the play. 


At the same time, it’s an intriguing show. Wallace’s lyrical skill as a writer, her striking tomboy and the unusual love story make for an interesting and thought-provoking evening. 




“The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek,” presented by Aurora Theater, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, Wednesday through Sunday, through Feb. 10. Call (510) 843-4822 or visit 




Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at