Tailgrass Gothic, Impact’s production of Melanie Marnich’s new play, in the netherworld below La Val’s Pizzeria, cleverly resets Middleton and Rowley’s harrowing tragedy of 1622 in the modern American Midwest (after the bloody conclusion to Impact’s last Jacobean thriller, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, “Heartland” already takes on an eerier tone of meaning).
On Sarah Coykendall’s set—a bed strewn with hay, aggie implements along the walls and a leatherette backseat of a car thrown over wooden crates as a bench—the action plays out: adultery in a tight, church-going community, where everybody knows everybody else. And everybody seems to talk to each other, or themselves, over a beer, about what they imagine is happening in everybody else’s lives, or about whether they believe in strange appearances, ghost stories ...
Directed by Mina Morita, using every inch of the little basement playing area, the plot unravels like a combination of film noir with daytime TV, wisely without intermission: Laura (Mayra Gaeta) can’t get over her intoxication with Daniel (Chris Celotti) or her aversion to her abusive husband Tin (Joseph Rende), who in turn brags about his hot connubial bliss to his buddy Scotto (Bryan Quinn), showering Scotto’s hints of Laura’s infidelity with belittling invective.
Laura’s confidante is her old friend Mary (Elissa Dunn), who has more than a sisterly affection for her friend. One of the clever links to the Jacobean stage is Mary’s sword-swallowing act with her brother’s discarded blade—“It’s just a trick!”—and its repetition later under more ghastly, but still tricky, circumstances. As on the “ancient English stage,” there are both portents and appearances, naturalized to the workaday homilies of America’s Breadbasket.
Lurking almost in the shadows is the strangely smiling loner, Filene (Stacz Sadowski), “not a body with a scar-a scar with a body”—who offers his services to Laura out of a perverse gallantry, not expecting love in return, but apparently just because she’s caught his eye—as different.
Sadowski and Dunn have the plum roles in this kind of show. As Orson Welles once put it, Renaissance English tragedy is close to melodrama, and in melodrama, the villain is always more interesting than the hero. Or heroine. Both take the bloody baton and run with it. But, as in ‘Tis Pity, despite any and all rough edges, all the players—and the play—come through when it counts, up to the quick, admirably dry conclusion, so chilling it smarts.
Marnich calls her play “actually a ghost story, a tale about being haunted by one’s desires, actions and mistakes.” When the script and the show bring that to the fore, it’s most theatrical, paradoxically a palpable feeling—something you can see, hear, smell, taste ... was it Democritus who wrote, “All senses are forms of touch”?