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The Twelfth Labor

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

The Twelfth Labor, a new play written by Leegrid Stevens and directed by Matt Torney at the Gene Frankel Theatre, is a head spinning trove of ideas, images, time shifts, mythological analogies, and references to popular culture. Yet somehow through all of this, it manages to anchor itself to a cohesive tale about a dirt poor Idaho farm family doing its best to survive during and just after World War II.

Forrest (Jed Dickson), the family patriarch, has been missing in action ever since the United States entered the war. His photo atop a small table is the only non-utilitarian item on display in the family's rough-hewn homestead, nicely captured by Carolyn Mraz's set design. It has been left to his wife Esther (the excellent Lynne McCollough) to hunker down in order to keep the family fed and the farm going, come hell or high water (the former is a metaphor while the latter actually does encroach).

The children—Cruce (Jonathan Draxton), Donna (Shelby Hightower), Cleo (Erin Treadway), and Herk (Tanis Rivera LePore)—are terrified of Esther. And given that the first sight we have of her is when she is breaking the neck of the family's cat, it's not hard to understand their trepidations.

The troubles do pile up. Cruce, kicked by the family's plow horse, can barely limp around on his damaged leg, yet he must continue to do the heavy farm work; Donna is planning to run off with a soldier; Herk is scared of his own shadow; and Cleo is mentally disabled and has problems processing language, so that when we hear conversations as she experiences them, they come out as a garbled tangle of mispronunciations and malapropisms. She is also the uncomprehending bearer of even more troubles, brought on by a seductive neighbor (Brian White), which Esther takes upon herself to remedy with the aid of an old admirer (Dennis Gagomiros).

As a character, Cleo is the playwright's greatest and most complex invention. Splendidly embodied by Ms. Treadway (who has worked with Mr. Stevens on other projects), Cleo is both socially naïve and gifted with a creative imagination, possessing a mind that explodes with a whirlwind of images colored by her experiences with fairy tales, Abbott and Costello routines, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone With the Wind. The play itself follows suit as it moves from naturalistic realism to dreamy surrealism, and from periods of tense drama to displays of emotional power punches, with side trips into melodrama. It even has its own "Greek Chorus," embodied by a trio of interfering, gossipy women (Michael Huston, Cynthia Babak, and Amy Bizjak).

There is no question that Leegrid Stevens is an original and talented wordsmith. His ability to manipulate language to express Cleo's disability, and his clever use of well-known movie dialog to fit his characters is nothing short of brilliant. But running at close to three hours, The Twelfth Labor could use some judicious pruning in its second half. There is a lengthy dream sequence following the intermission that is a marvel to behold, but the play might be better served by scrapping it—or by forgoing a subsequent monolog about the father's time as a prisoner-of-war, also scathingly written and perhaps more in keeping with the overall thrust of the play and the portrait it paints of a family holding on for dear life.

The Twelfth Labor
Through October 11
The Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Loading Dock Theatre