According to Robert McIlwaine, "country dark" is a darkness so complete that it's like sleepingwalking with open eyes, or walking on the bottom of the sea. It's the kind of dark that makes forward progress almost impossible, leaving perhaps the best solution to be walking backwards.
Each of the three characters in McIlwaine's new play, appropriately titled Country Dark, discover this over the course of one evening at a remote cabin in the woods of upstate New York. They're all suffering from low self-esteem and inflated expectations of a better life, so it's not until they can re-examine their pasts that they may be able to forge a new path. If it turns out that there's no light at the end of the journey, there might at least be a self-awareness with which they can effect change.
That sense of the tantalizing possibility of a collapsed life giving way to a better one, and the actors' excellent performances, make most of Country Dark an engrossing play. But even at just 90 minutes, it feels as though there's just enough cloudiness and padding to keep the play from being its shattering, incisive best, a problem that compounds itself one too many times just as the drama should reach its strongest point.
That problem can be difficult to avoid when trading in secrets, as McIlwaine does throughout the show. If those mysteries are given enough (or, more accurately, too much) build-up, the show can crumple under the weight of answers that don't satisfying as much as the questions. That's more or less what happens when we finally learn the nature of the relationship between Charles (Eric Martin Brown) and Leo (Gerry Hildebrandt), on which the show's story centers.
We know from the get-go that Leo - who has a real interest in fashion and photography - raised Charles, but we know very little about what's transpired between the two, particularly as far as women are concerned. When Charles arrives at Leo's cabin with his new city girlfriend Lisa (Krista Braun), a lot of their old resentments and behaviors come back to haunt them. Leo believes that Lisa, like the other women Charles has brought home, can easily be coerced into whatever he wants, though Charles insists she's different. Lisa also believes that she's different, capable of being more than just a topless dancer.
By the time the play approaches its conclusion, and we learn the nature of Leo's fascination with Lisa, it seems as if McIlwaine's well of ideas has run dry. The final answers McIlwaine provides - particularly the confrontation between Leo and Lisa and the last-minute revelations with which the play ends - don't match the magnitude of the questions earlier on. The characters are drawn so fully and intelligently in the first act that to see them devolve into clichés in the second feels like a betrayal; that the end of the play hinges on one utterly outrageous action from one of these previously believable characters certainly doesn't help.
But when Country Dark is hot, it sizzles. Director Clyde Baldo, who also designed the show's set, never shies away from the darker, creepier elements McIlwaine provides, which gives the production exactly the texture and tone it needs. Even better is the work he's coaxed out of his actors: Brown, Braun, and Hildebrandt have terrific chemistry together, and give performances of beguiling intensity. If Hildebrandt's Leo doesn't look convincingly old enough to have raised Charles from his early childhood, there's not much else wrong with their portrayals.
The performances and much of the script are strong enough to make the weaker parts of Country Dark seem more detrimental to the show as a whole than they otherwise might. If McIlwaine can see his way to shining some clarifying light on some of his murkier writing, Country Dark has the potential to be even more memorable - and unsettling - than it currently is.
Midtown International Theatre Festival