Country Dark shines a precise and unsparing light on ugly places an audience might not like to go. It is a story of addiction, power struggles, and thwarted escapes. It is not for fainthearted viewers. It is a play for people who love theatre, though it capitalizes on the less-appealing aspects of voyeurism.
The play begins with an apparently innocuous boy-met-girl story and a homecoming. A young man, Charles (Eric Martin Brown), has invited his new girlfriend, Lisa (Krista Braun), to his family cabin in the woods. Charlie's older brother, Leo (Gerry Hildebrandt), is the family. There are ominous warnings of violence in the mention of dead crows and black eyes, but the expertly calculating direction (Clyde Baldo) didn't let the audience add them up right away. Maybe the leaves and dirt on the floor of the outstanding set (Baldo, as well) ought to have tipped the viewer off to the evil within. But sometimes a cabin in the woods is, well, just a cabin in the woods. Step-by-step, the audience were lured into the increasingly unworldly world of the voyeur and his vicarious pleasures -- by a topless dancer and a procurer, no less, visiting an older brother, who, it is slowly revealed, is addicted to pornography. The family bond requires the brother to supply the subjects.
In retrospect, there were plenty of hints of what was to come -- a mother's desertion, the requirement of dressing for dinner in the woods. How was the audience different from Leo? Charles and Lisa wanted to escape the "life," but the lighted pathway eluded them. Clothing, food, and props were manipulated as symbols of addiction and attraction, expertly costumed (Katie Hellmuth) -- from the satanic smoking jacket to the sexy black dress -- and lit in a way that carried the audience willingly into the dark and abandoned it to face the consequences of its own participation in the experience.
As Leo, Hildebrandt offered the right mix of calculation and sleaze. He was the perfect lure for the demeaning, dangerous game. As Lisa, Braun was convincing in her wish to take him on and win, but the playwright skillfully turns her words back on her wish in a haunting way that makes it clear she is up against the devil: "I want you both," she says tellingly, as if her heart were possessed, then corrects the irony: "I want you both to stop." Too late. As Charles, Brown conveyed accurately the desperation of a man who couldn't leave the deal with the devil -- particularly if the devil appeared in the person of his pathetic brother. All these performances were deeply affecting, with Hildebrandt's tragic quest for empathy -- to understand the beautiful -- the most poignant performance. The picture the audience was left with was well worth the thousand words and more that McIlwaine used, but the meaning exposed was negative and dark -- "like no dark you ever met up with."
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Copyright 2004 Deborah S. Greenhut