Most of Johanna Adams’s new play, Cockfighters, can be summed up in one line: "You got yourself some goddamned unfortunate children." Thus spake Sheriff Hump of East Nowhere, Texas, during his supposed murder investigation of Fowler’s daughter, Shirley.
Dwight Fowler’s children are unfortunate. He breeds and fights gamecocks; cockfighting is illegal, but what passes for local law turns a blind eye to the fights. Fowler’s oldest son, C.D., is an alcoholic rowdy in swift decline, picking fights with everyone in the county. His other son, Clarence, is slightly deformed and mentally slow. Only his daughter, Shirley, shows any promise. But she’s dating Rye, the local good ol’ boy, and her father and brother hate him with a passion. When Shirley turns up dead in a ditch one night, beaten to a pulp, the Fowler family immediately suspects Rye. In fact, C.D. kidnaps Rye and takes him to a field late one night for a bout of particularly brutal vigilante justice. Sheriff Hump, Rye’s uncle, swears Rye is innocent, but Fowler suspects otherwise. Rye can’t remember a thing (or so he claims); he’d been drinking, and passed out while Shirley was still with him. When Hump comes out to the Fowler farm, Fowler manages—in his own brutal vigilante fashion—to get the full story out of Hump, while C.D. is learning the truth from Rye. And Clarence, the idiot, has a bigger and more sinister part in the story than even he is aware.
Cockfighters is a twisted and disturbing story, and just goes to prove that Texas is big enough to harbor all sorts of weirdness (George Bush included). Scot Carlisle as Clarence was especially chilling, if a little one-dimensional. Raphael Fetta portrayed Rye in all his redneck west-Texas glory (an accurate depiction if ever there was one), and Eevin Hartsough as Shirley provided a nice counterweight to the overflow of testosterone around her. The cast had a unique energy, feeding from each other, that was remarkable and exciting to watch. The lighting (Aaron J. Mason) and sound (Michael Juarez) were occasionally lackluster, but the set (W.T. McRae) was nimbly pieced together, with just the right amount of chicken wire.
It’s a suspenseful play, a fine start for Adams; it’ll be interesting to see how her writing develops. The story jumps back and forth in time, some scenes playing simultaneously, releasing just enough new information in each scene to keep the audience hooked. And while this may make for breathless reading, the cast seemed slow with the many transitions, which ultimately tripped up the pace and threatened to topple the whole production. Never fear, though; the fine acting (and the surprise ending) more than made up for that. Cockfighters is an excellent fit for this young and talented company.
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Copyright 2003 Jenny Sandman