What’s the truth? What indeed. That takes a long time to determine in The Butcher of Baraboo, Marisa Wegrzyn’s cutting if mildly anemic new play, which is being presented at the McGinn/Cazale as part of the annual Second Stage Theatre Uptown series. That’s as it should be: After all, exactly what’s correct, what’s proper, and what’s most meaningful are the hardest things in life to nail down, and if you can’t do it you might end up slitting throats the way some people chop up meat.
When it comes to the quest for self, everyone Wegrzyn introduces us to in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is at best an amateur detective. Oh, there’s an official mystery lurking around the play’s edges they all want a crack at - what happened to Frank, who vanished without a trace some time ago and is now presumed dead? But the characters’ unraveling the causes of their own dissatisfaction, with themselves and with everyone else, has to come first. And when it does, it hits home with violent force. As written by Wegrzyn and directed by Judith Ivey, you never know exactly from where those blows will originate.
You’d expect the butcher of the title, Valerie (Debra Jo Rupp), to land in a few choice whacks: Her husband Frank’s disappearance has sent her into a cocoon of seclusion from which she’s only now beginning to emerge, and dealing with the outside world would rightfully be a challenge. Though they initially seem better adjusted, Valerie’s daughter Midge (Ashlie Atkinson), Frank’s brother Donal (Michael Countryman), and Donal’s Mormon wife Sevenly (Ali Marsh) may in fact be in even more dangerous straits: Each is struggling under the weight of a different secret that could shatter everyone’s lives if revealed.
But though the plot is perversely tangled, Wegrzyn’s gentle approach to setting it all straight never depends on button-pushing to drive the story forward. New twists and resolutions evolve so organically, they can be difficult to recognize: The first-act finale, little more than a casual midnight conversation between Midge and Sevenly, is an unassuming but expertly crafted dramatic centerpiece that fixes most of the play’s seemingly bizarre events as a slice of off-kilter life.
Even when tensions escalate, and misplaced cutlery becomes as important as missing people, it all feels completely natural, as if everyone has been down this road before and is now merely angling for a return trip. A very subtle sense of repetition in both Wegrzyn’s script and Ivey’s warmly judged staging underscores this: Escaping yourself and your most-hated loved ones is impossible, so you might as well learn to live with it.
Though the play could be trimmed of a bit of fat, particularly in the more drawn-out dialogue scenes that can’t capitalize on the characters’ innate, discontented energies, it’s unstoppable as long as it focuses on the interweaving relationships of the central quartet. The play’s fifth character, Frank and Donal’s sister Gail (Welker White), is a stereotypically buffoonish Midwestern policewoman who disrupts the narrative and the production’s careful balance of drama and comedy. (The evening’s nadir occurs when she must weather the effects of the crystal meth she’s imbibed.) White’s self-indulgent, tongue-chewing performance only emphasizes the disconnect between her and the more fully rounded personalities onstage.
Atkinson is an engaging enigma as Midge, making her a passive-aggressive wallflower just achieving an unsteady bloom. Marsh’s whipped-cream-going-sour work is just right for the tentative Sevenly, an innocent outsider dragged into a family forever in conflict. Countryman doesn’t possess enough of Donal’s deflated go-getter attitude in the first act, but redeems himself after intermission when he must visit even darker places.
Rupp, however, is an intense joy from beginning to end, imbuing Valerie with the same sense of brittle, comic authority she brought to television for so many years as Kitty Forman on That ‘70s Show. But underlying that surface-level humor is the anguish of loss, the tortured realization of opportunities that have passed by and may never come her way again. As the play unfolds and you come to understand exactly how much of a player Valerie has truly been in her own destiny, Rupp amplifies her portrayal to nearly Medean proportions.
She’s especially powerful in the play’s chilling final scene, when all of the story’s unresolved elements collide to show exactly what Valerie is capable of, and why the butcher of Baraboo should not be underestimated. That Wegrzyn and Ivey are capable of introducing so many new surprises so credibly and so late into the play proves that this Butcher of Baraboo shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
The Butcher of Baraboo