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Sweet Storm

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sweet Storm
Jamie Dunn and Eric T. Miller.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Can you think of anything more exciting to do on your wedding night than argue, pray, and get into a food fight - in a treehouse? If not, then you’ll definitely be able to relate to Scott Hudson’s new play Sweet Storm, the coproduction of Alchemy Theatre and LAByrinth Theater Company that just opened at the Kirk Theatre. If, however, you believe the evening after a wedding is better dedicated to more, shall we say, rarefied activities, you’re likely to find this play as unbearable as the two newlyweds it chronicles are rapidly learning they find each other.

Well, sort of. One of the most glaring inconsistencies of Hudson’s play, which has been apathetically directed by Padraic Lillis, is that Bo (Eric T. Miller) and Ruthie (Jamie Dunn) have apparently known each other for quite a while. Yet despite living in a tight-knit religious community in Florida in the mid-20th century (the play is set in September 1960), neither has developed the art of communication. We know a little: Ruthie recently lost the use of her legs, Bo is an on-the-rise preacher looking for full-time work. But despite having met in the very oak branches on which they’re now honeymooning, the couple may as well have never met before.

At the very least, it’s questionable these two would get as far as the ceremony without having discussed whether Bo had ever kissed another girl. Or addressed the issue that Ruthie is so incontinent that she can’t laugh, cry, or merely sit still without scrambling for the bedpan. Or even pondered the career and domestic prospects they both face: Bo has not been exactly forthright, for example, about the exact location of the church he plans to run or the home he plans to build. To say that things get touchy, and that a happy marriage is not exactly preordained, is something of an understatement. As is describing this as a play that hasn’t been thought through much better than Bo and Ruthie’s union.

I’d love to be able to say we should leave aside the issue of the setting (which has been acceptably, if unexcitingly, designed by Lea Umberger), but a playwright’s note in the program makes that impossible. Hudson claims the treehouse was the first idea that solidified for him, and that everything else followed from it. Yet nothing suggests why this handicapped girl is the rickety house’s ideal inhabitant, or what her physical challenges contribute to this story in the first place. Perhaps Hudson was attracted to the idea of a marriage collapsing in its initial hours via arguments that must be conducted with one participant forever fixed to the bed?

Devising plays from such meaningless externals, whether bodily or scenic, rarely results in as vibrant an emotional exploration as you get from stories that evolve from characters. Ruthie’s immobility forces Lillis to deliver stunningly inert visuals that leave no physical room for the tension between the two to develop, true. But she doesn’t exist as a woman beyond her accident and poor bladder control, which makes her persona fully watery; if not for Bo’s penchant toward deception and affection for the newly purchased pair of “boxer drawers” he can’t stop admiring, we’d hardly know anything about him, either.

Neither Dunn, with her vacant stares and one-note whiny voice, and Miller, whose entire portrayal emanates from the dumb-hick drawl he employs, evince much in the way of personality or creativity. And their utter lack of chemistry together would extinguish any fire in the writing, assuming there were any smoldering in the first place. But none of this matters much, given all that Hudson hasn’t bothered to include: If he didn’t claim in that program note he wanted to salute his family’s own Southern roots, Sweet Storm would feel even more like an evisceration of everyone on the opposite side of the Mason-Dixon Line. As it is, it constantly teeters on the edge of parody, with Bo and Ruthie both so clueless about life and each other that they may as well be traipsing through a Saturday Night Live skit during an election year. (One imagines Dunn could do a mean Sarah Palin.)

One stultifying scene, in which the two bicker while he’s on his knees praying and she flails about on the bed, is one object lesson in how to not write - or stage - a fight if you want it to be taken seriously. A second occurs just moments later, when playful needling about their wedding cake leads to a frosting-slinging grudge match. That this inspires Ruthie to another bout of uncontrolled urination, and to fret endlessly about the chocolate Bo accidentally smears all over her lower torso (and Lord knows where else as well) tells you everything you need to know about where Sweet Storm’s heart and head most assuredly aren’t.


Sweet Storm
Through July 12
Kirk Theater, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street at 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral