American Stare: Would-Be Trailer Park Social Treatise Morphs into Engrossing Gothic Melodrama
It is highly unlikely that author Tony Glazer ever intended for anyone viewing American Stare to come away with that question in mind. However, given the dichotomous, at times, reprehensible behavior of the five trailer park residents depicted here, it is the question which American Stare screamed at me across the figurative footlights. Only viewers with the pre-determined view that the poor are so shackled and abused that they cannot be held in any way morally or socially responsible for the most heinous and irresponsible acts will not consider that question as being on the front burner here. As I commit these thoughts to the page, it dawns on me that Glazer takes this as a given
Three of the trailer park residents are a no longer compatible husband and wife: the sporadically employed, alcoholic Charles Mooney and his hard working (as a grocery clerk), bitterly disappointed and dispirited wife Allison; and their inexplicably brilliant and societally aware 14-year-old daughter Jonatha. Charles nurses a foolish bias toward minorities and immigrants whom he blames for his employment difficulties. Charles' education stopped abruptly after he impregnated the older Allison, chose to marry her, and got a job to support her and their child.
Jonatha is nurtured by Margaret Bowie, a good hearted, recently widowed youngish woman who has been worn down by her struggles to pay her bills. Her husband had died of a cancer which resulted from the dumping of a toxic chemical on their "land in Homestead." Margaret's lawsuit against the dumping chemical company was dismissed because her not having developed cancer made it "inconclusive" as to whether the chemical caused cancer. Left with her late husband's hospital bills and attorney bills, Margaret doesn't have the resources to pursue an appeal. Oh, and Margaret has a barking monster of a vicious dog who bites off the heads of intruding raccoons. Now don't forget about that dog. We may never see him, but he has a real role here.
Just to carry us a bit more over the top, another trailer park denizen on view is the castrated lay-about Clark Felix. Revealed as a child sex predator by the television sting operation "To Catch a Predator," Felix was castrated by the voracious customers at the Blue Star Buffet. Felix, who maintains his innocence ("My dyslexia is how I got all mixed up in that show ... I thought that girl was 31, not 13"), sued NBC and received a large settlement. He's cantankerous, but also a warm soul, but don't get in the way of his overflowing urinary bag.
The true lowlife on view is visitor Robert Stimptner, the representative of corporate capitalist America. Stimptner represents that his company wants to buy permission to file a patent for Margaret's DNA sequences as that sequencing appears to produce a firewall which prevents the development of cancer. Of course, when Margaret signs that contract she will be giving up the right to sue the chemical dumping company for a relative song.
Author Tony Glazer effectively employs the familiar, obvious clichés inherent in his story to produce a rousing agit-prop melodrama with sympathetic victims and a fully fledged villain easy to hate. However, not feeling any need to smooth out unsympathetic traits and behavior in his victims, Glazer ups the ante by creating confrontations and actions for them which turn the second act of American Stare into a lurid and powerful Grand Guignol entertainment.
Director Evan Bergman and his strong cast have wisely chosen to emphasize the heightened and lurid tone of the writing. Resident Scenic Designer Jessica Parks, who repeatedly performs miracles on the NJ Rep's narrow stage, here has to crowd her three trailers into a tight space. However, Parks manages to provide a realistic, large and fluid space for the outdoor area in which the entire piece is played out.
Shane Patrick Kearns is particularly effective in conveying the ineffective child-man who is Charles. LeeAnne Hutchison is fiercely and hurtfully monstrous in her confrontation with Jonatha. Her insight and regret immediately following her outburst are not fully convincing. However, here the performance is more honest than the writing. Becca Ballenger in the role of Jonatha fully captures and maintains the carriage, movement, and physical attitudes of a 15-year-old adolescent as she skillfully navigates the dramatic waters in which Jonatha finds herself.
Trey Gibbons is smooth and believable as the erratic and uncentered Clark Felix. Summer Crockett Moore is a stoic Margaret. Brad Holbrook is a very persuasive Robert Stimptner. This is quite something, given that Holbrook has to mouth the argument that war is good because without it there would not be enough food for everyone.
Although he is not Voltaire, Tony Glazer's skillful intelligence, theatrical flair, and confident passion are effectively on display in American Stare.
American Stare continues performances Evenings: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm through July 22, 2012, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
American Stare by Tony Glazer; directed by Evan Bergman