Ian Mackenzie Jeffers writes beautifully. Graham Anderson and Jennifer Jerome are extremely good actors, and Christopher Kerson isn’t too shabby either. That said, there’s something missing from Jeffers’s A Crack in the Ground.
There’s all kinds of good stuff here. Walter (Kerson) is a young man released from a state-run mental institution; he searches out his past, trying to sort out the fragments of memory and trauma he carries with him. He returns to his childhood home where he finds John (Anderson), an old friend of the family who is unapologetically drinking himself to death. John has all kinds of information about Walter’s parents but seems to be hiding a great deal, so Walter begins reading his father’s old journals and gets himself a job at the local college, where his father had been a librarian. Along the way, he also meets Margaret (Jerome), who soon becomes a love interest. Predictably enough, the action moves toward much cathartic shouting and weeping and gnashing of teeth. Walter invites Margaret over for dinner; John drinks too much; secrets about Walter’s parents are revealed. It’s good melodrama, written sensitively and often even poetically.
Structurally, though, the text seems a bit weak and certain moments remain unclear. The three-act play is set almost entirely in John’s house, but the opening scene takes place at the asylum. Nothing is revealed here that couldn’t have been brought out in dialog at the house, so why not open the play with Walter's arriving home? The first act features exposition-heavy soliloquies by Walter; these feel like a narrative crutch, an impression borne out by the absence of such speeches later in the play. Shocking revelations in the third act, intended to bring the puzzle of Walter’s past into sharper focus, leave too much unsaid. It’s great that Jeffers wants the audience to work a little, but he needs to provide enough information to be sure they’ll solve the puzzle. One bit of dialog hints at a formal structure to the play (Life, Death, Decay), but this isn’t followed through with any real clarity.
Marcia Haufrecht clearly spent a great deal of time with the actors but neglected the visuals of the production. The staging was mostly uninteresting and prosaic. The sets and costumes by Kristin Smith were functional but forgettable, and the uncredited light and sound design were rarely more than adequate, adding little aesthetically and failing to impart much information about time and place.
The pacing, too, tended toward the monotonous, the actors allowed to wallow in their emotional moments at the expense of any sense of narrative motion or suspense. This was unfortunate, because the performances were mostly very strong. Anderson dove fearlessly into John’s defensive emotional violence. Kerson balanced Walter’s determination to make a life for himself with his touching uncertainty about his own mental health. Jerome delivered the show’s most nuanced performance, as the deceptively fragile Margaret. Cheryl Cochrane seems a competent actress, but was given little to do in a thankless cameo role.
Despite its flaws, A Crack in the Ground deserves to find an audience, but perhaps not just yet. It’s an ambitious and promising piece of theater that could use another draft and a more vigorous production.
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Copyright 2002 Frank Episale