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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Brand new American Sublime
still feels unsettled

American Sublime
Casey Greig
The premiere of Patty Lynch's dark psychological thriller, American Sublime, co-produced by Building 7 Productions, Gallery Atitlan and the Minnesota Fringe Festival, generates a sense of mystery and dubious intent and is well acted. But the mystery remains too obscure as it builds towards a climax that is insufficiently realized and an ending that peters out.

The play takes its name from the art movement of the late 19th century that reveled in dramatic American wilderness scenes in which the artist freely altered what he saw and exaggerated the grandeur of scale to create a sense of incipient danger and to inspire awe. Inviting metaphorical stuff for a playwright, and Lynch cues off the painting to mine metaphor throughout.

First-time producer Terry Hempleman wisely sets Sublime in a real gallery. Gallery Atitlan has the appropriate lighting and bare spaces that interconnect. All the set required was a large reproduction of a Bierstadt painting, a museum label - with its brief spiel on the work and its provenance - and a museum bench.

Hokey Todd and his wife Constance breeze into the American wing of a large museum to sit and gaze at Albert Bierstadt's 1866 canvas, "Storm in the Rockies, Mount Rosalie." They talk of America before it was spoiled, and kiss. The kiss heats up, and a guard's voice from stage right calls, "Get a room." It's a great beginning.

The museum guard, an impressionable young man who is new in his job, suspects that they are up to no good, but his cheap two-way radio won't work, and he's torn between fetching help and leaving the pair alone with the Bierstadt. What's more, a VIP is expected at any minute to visit a special exhibit, a VIP in a turban, we learn from Todd. The couple name the young man "Guard" because that's all his name badge reveals, and they manipulate him with a story of losing a much-wanted son. Their stories don't mesh, but Guard is caught by Constance's remark that she glimpses a special quality in him. "The storm is approaching," predicts Todd, perhaps over-signaling metaphor. The couple clearly have some sort of agenda for lonely Guard, and their unpredictable conversation hints (too vaguely) at a belief that they are doing God's work in the cause of patriotism.

Terry Hempleman's commonplace Todd convinces. Todd likes to lead boys on mountain camping expeditions. Wherever he goes he carries with him Sir Swiss Army Penknife, Mr. Pretty, a gun, and a folding shovel to "dig deep" when you need to. He shows hints of paranoid, survivalist thinking and white supremacist leanings. In fact, it is only now, as I write and wrestle with this play, that I have dug deep enough to understand that Todd and Constance are fanatics. Lynch's script needs more shading to help an audience intuit the couple's motivation, but she succeeds in pointing out the ordinary face that extremism can present.

Constance, too, is seemingly wholesome. Appropriately, Todd calls her "Con" for short. Amy McDonald plays her as a sometimes motherly, sometimes sensuous, woman who can work herself into a fury of grief over the questionable dead son. I sensed that they had done this many times before.

Accomplished young Casey Greig compels as Guard. I felt concerned for him. Greig fills Guard with an unspoken yearning for approval. This vulnerable youth likes fantasy, the comic-book life of heroes, guns and "big-tit women trying to get your head cut off," pliable material for Todd and Con to mold.

The denouement comes over Guard's crackly radio, and it's neither clear nor dramatic enough. And I didn't buy that Todd and Con would sit around in the darkened gallery, playing camp games with a flashlight at play's end.

Sublime packs topicality and potential. Lynch's writing is strong, often surprising and funny, but the play's focus must tighten. My take? American Sublime needs more of the sturm and drang that is evident in Bierstadt's overtly dramatic painting that inspired the notion for this promising thriller.

American Sublime April 15 May 1, 2005. Fridays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. and Sundays 7:00 p.m. Special performance Monday 25 8:00 p.m. Tickets $10 - $15. Building 7 Productions, Atitlan Gallery, 609, South 10th Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-436-5555.


Photo: Kirsten Wedes


- Elizabeth Weir



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