They say you can hear a rattlesnake hiss before it strikes, and in the case of this Rattlesnake at the Workshop Theatre, that hiss means it’s about to strike gold. The raw and menacing new play by Fred Pezzulli has assembled that rare combination of fluid set design, timeless costuming, dead-on lighting, and brilliant acting. With this powerhouse of talent, it’s no surprise that Rattlesnake never lets its audience drift away for a second.
West Virginia in 1944 was not a place where people planned to arrive, but rather schemed to get out of. As a training base for troops about to be shipped out to the Pacific, the small poor town where Jessie and her mother live both prospers and weakens from the arrival of so many spendthrift soldiers. As the purveyors of the carnal goods that can only be found on Randolph Street, the house serves as not only an undercover brothel but as a base for many of the locals restless to find a familial structure, as odd as it may be. The arrival of one particular soldier, however, sets off a course of events that shatters the quiet mountain town and forever changes the lives of the seven characters.
The undeniable star of the show is Canan Erguder, who spends nearly the entire two hours onstage, luring the audience ever closer to the fire with her dangerous gaze. As Jessie, the unofficial madam of the house, Ms. Erguder expertly uses her drawling voice and curvaceous limbs to wrap not only the town around her finger, but the audience as well. Tough as nails and sweet as sugar, it’s easy to see why Jessie practically runs this town, and Ms. Erguder never wavers from her steely focus, doing what she wants “when she feels like it” and convincing her acquaintances to carry out her requests. She is mesmerizing, a hypnotist with unbelievable powers, but vulnerable when with the man who gets her to drop her guard.
Playing that man is Jake Robards, son of the formidable late actor Jason Robards, and tentatively starting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Last seen in the Broadway staging of Our Town with Paul Newman, Mr. Robards brings a charming nostalgic quality to his portrayal of Johnny, a corporal who ventures to Randolph Street only to retrieve a stray soldier. His matinee idol good looks and easy-going allure make it downright simple to see why Jessie falls for him, but he tends to appear a bit stilted when next to Ms. Erguder. This is not enough to deter from his final performance, but makes the overall effect seem a little off-kilter at times.
Also especially notable is Ben Sumrall as Buddy, the fresh-faced and eager boy who hangs around Jessie like a lovesick puppy. With just enough nerdiness and frank adolescent honesty, Mr. Sumrall’s time on stage conjures up endearingly uncomfortable memories of teenage years.
Rounding out the cast are Ellen Saland as Jessie’s timid mother Jane, Brittney Venable as the naughty but lost girl-in-residence Maryann, Jim Bray as the terrified soldier Billy, and Christopher Burke as the drunk and bitter Buck, Jessie’s old flame. Mr. Burke does some fine work as the hulking scorned lover, but the dilemma of playing a man with only obsession and no motivation is that it can easily fall into a single layer performance.
Director Elysa Marden excels at unraveling this dangerous story, subtly planting clues then knocking down the dominoes towards the show’s final climax. The intimacy of the Workshop Theatre’s Main Stage bolsters the illusion of Randolph Street, inviting the audience onto the porch and into the living room of Jessie’s house with such ease that when the horror begins there’s nowhere else to run to. Andrew C. Boyce’s remarkable set allows the characters to travel without walls, instead simulating the walls they feel between each other. Likewise, Nayan Panchal has created a world that is lit with the steaminess of Southern summers but icy within the shadows.
Fred Pezzulli’s play manages to capture the eerie desperation of an abandoned small town and the pent-up agitation of its inhabitants. Gripping, provocative, and laced with poison, Rattlesnake is as deadly as it is enticing.
WorkShop Theater Company