FEW HISTORICAL APPELLATIONS seem as appropriate as "The Great Depression." It's not the economic state of the nation we think of when we envision the 1930s, it's those grim, haunted photographs of breadlines, dust bowl farmers, and acres of Hoovervilles dotting the urban landscape. America learned the meaning of hopelessness during the Depression, and it remains the template for a particular form of the national nightmare—one so potent we rarely deal with it in our art except in sentimentalized, rosy-colored images.
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek
Theater Schmeater till December 18
Which is certainly not what you'll find in The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, the new play Naomi Wallace set in 1936 in "Anywhere, USA" that's receiving its Northwest premiere at Theater Schmeater. The trestle of the title is a high bridge over a dried-up riverbed, on which a train passes every evening at 7:10. Teenaged Pace (Deanna Companion) knows just about everything about that train, but the information she's most eager to impart to her friend Dalton (David Goldstein) is its speed, because she's suggesting a new pastime: playing chicken with the train by racing toward it on foot across the bridge. While Dalton initially refuses her dangerous offer, he's drawn to her—and the race—despite his better judgment. Her reasoning is direct but strangely obscure: "If you don't, your life will turn out just like you think it will: quick, dirty, and cold."
While Pace is seemingly obsessed with speed and movement, Dalton's father Dray (Jerry Lloyd) has sunk into near-catatonia after he's been laid off. He sits in front of a candle, making hand-shadows, barely able to respond to his wife Gin (Kelly Lloyd) despite the fact that her job at a plate-making factory is now threatened as well. When she mentions to him that a group of workers plans to take over a glass plant, he can only mumble about "communists" and warn her of the dangers of strikebreakers.
We learn early on in Wallace's play that Pace and Dalton's run ends disastrously, as the playwright juggles her time scheme so that we've scarcely been introduced to the pair before we see Dalton in a jail cell awaiting trial for the murder of Pace. He's keeping silent about the events, despite the questions of his jailer Chas Weaver (Charles Leggett), an eccentric older man whose own son was killed in an attempt to cross the trestle. From this point on, the piece plays like a murder mystery, in which the audience is challenged to discover just what happened on the night the two runners vowed to beat the speed of the oncoming train.
Though Wallace's occasionally overloaded prose and her tendency to wear her social agenda on her sleeve can lead to cringeworthy theatrical excesses, not only is Trestle a surprisingly earthbound script, but Sheila Daniels' fine production has found a remarkable way to give inarticulate yearnings and frustrations a language. Both Companion and Goldstein, only a few years older than the characters they play, give accomplished and nuanced performances that find a powerful tension in the attraction and antipathy they feel for each other. The Lloyds, always a pleasure on this or any stage, give an eloquent portrait of a couple slowly dying from their inability to change. And Leggett's powerful performance moves from menacing to avuncular to heartrending; his Weaver is a man who is all too aware of his past sins and the impossibility of their forgiveness in the present.
Etta Lilienthal's simple but inspired set design makes the horizon of the theater's small stage seem impossibly distant, and Jeff Kunins' evocative musical scoring incorporates voices and sound effects with original music to amplify the power of the cast. What results is a whole that's entirely true to Wallace's complex and provocative work, a vision of a world in which risking your life is perhaps the only way to save it.