Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Big Heartless

Just Say It Theatre / New Mexico School for the Arts
Review by Mark Dunn

Also see Dean's review of Three Tall Women

Tulah Dillman-Stanford and Lucy Shattuck
Photo by Cameron Gay
Any playwright working in a community outside the supernal precincts of professional playmaking, e.g. New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, knows how freighted the phrase "local playwright" can be. Having worked as a professional playwright in New York and then having laid stakes in New Mexico, I know from experience the different presumptions that can be conjured by the phrase. Whether a hinterland playwright lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Pollywog, Alabama, there is always that suspicion that a "new play" by a "local playwright" will either be a bad play, a mediocre play, or at best "a not-half-bad play." One never presumes—given the address of the playwright—that the play could be counted among the best work presently being produced for the American stage.

And yet it's happening every weekend in the good ol' U.S.A. The enormous talent among the thousands of playwrights working throughout America, while rarely acknowledged in squibs in The New Yorker or reviews in national publications with "Times" and "Post" in their names, is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in the American theater. The Big Heartless, by Dale Dunn (no relation), is a play that confirms the rule—a fine piece of storytelling perfectly suited for the stage, a phenomenally skillful weaving of all the elements that make for engaging and dramatically gripping theater.

Dunn's story, both timeless and topical in its many layers of conflict and character interchange, melds in elemental application three of the most seminal categories of conflict, which writers have had to engineer for millennia: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself. Each is explored by Dunn with emotional resonance and power.

Mac, a backwoods loner employed by a wolf reintroduction program, has his hermetic world breached by the unexpected arrival of his teenage nephew Cliff and the boy's fugitive companion: a rebellious sixteen-year-old who has named herself Monsoon. The two have escaped from a reform school, which abides by a cruelly generous definition of the phrase "tough love." Occupants of a nearby cabin, Ned and Tootie, face end-of-life issues and concerns about leaving behind their young granddaughter Jean, whose social isolation—in spite of her love for Gramps and Gran—leaves her hungering for a traditional family dynamic—one that she herself attempts to create through The Sims ("Strategic Life Simulation") video game she compulsively plays on her neighbor Mac's laptop.

Dunn expertly intertwines the dense exposition inherent in these characters' tragic past lives with the calamity and heartbreak of the present and potential perils for the future, as each of these pivotal avenues of conflict force this sextet by circumstance to take journeys, both self-inflicted and governed by unfortunate happenstance that are ineluctably shaped by hard and painful choices. Mac and Ned and Tootie, and Jean and Cliff and Monsoon become two-legged analogs to the wolves that Mac monitors, worries over, and is sometimes required to mourn, especially when man takes the "man vs. nature" conflict model to cruel, unilateral extreme.

Strong themes of punishment and redemption, life and death, and imprisonment and freedom/liberation abound in Dunn's script, which is by turns both tightly astringent in its narrative, and unveiling and dramatically expansive in its aspirations.

Lynn Goodwin's direction is spot on. It's evident that she didn't have this script simply dropped overnight into her lap. Goodwin's care and thoughtfulness in how to move her characters through time and space comes through in each of the play's many standalone moments of conflict detonation and mitigation.

Likewise, the fine cast is up to the task of giving us grounded portraits of real people working through real-life problems, which become bigger-than-life challenges—the kind of acting challenges that make or break most actors. The "adults" in the cast, Matt Sanford as Mac, Jennifer Graves as Tootie, and Dan Friedman as Ned, bring a variety of colors and nuance to their roles, each evident of varying degrees of human frailty and struggle. The kids are terrific. Students of the New Mexico School for the Arts John Helfrich (Cliff), Lucy Shattuck (Monsoon), and Tulah Dillman-Stanford (Jean) are fully up to the task of fleshing out characters who have literally never been fleshed out in full production before. (There was an earlier workshop production of The Big Heartless at Relative Theatrics in Laramie, Wyoming.) The whole ensemble works together in clockwork concert.

Members of the production team shouldn't just be politely complimented here. The design elements for The Big Heartless are the best I've seen in Santa Fe in quite some time. Jay Bush's burlap-cocooned mountain cabin set evokes both the Centennial Mountains of Western Montana and an aesthetic stylization of simplified montane life. Everything on the set seems organic and purposefully supplied. Likewise, Dan Pilburn's wonderful sound design is meticulous and integral to the production, from the sound of offstage vehicles arriving and departing to the cacophony of fighting a raging fire. Hats off, as well, to Alexandra Pontone's perfect lighting design and media designer Dylan McLaughin's sophisticated projections, which give the entire production a wonderful cinematic feeling.

Don't miss this wonderful world premiere by a playwright who is both "local" and a true national talent.

The Big Heartless, Through March 3, 2019, at Warehouse 21 Theatre, 1614 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe NM. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. For tickets and information, visit or call 505-986-0847. The running time is two hours, not including intermission.