Southern Discomfort

The Rest of the Night works to make dysfunction relevant.

I'm not much for American rural -- slack-tongued accents, flat Coke, screen doors and heat, the heart-numbing sameness of daily life -- and I tend to dislike dramas about dysfunctional families, especially when the dysfunction involves addiction or alcohol. I've yawned through I don't know how many productions of Long Day's Journey Into Night. So I'm probably not the best audience for Robert Lewis Vaughan's The Rest of the Night, currently being given a finely detailed production by the Curious Theatre Company's Chip Walton. But then, every viewer brings his or her own prejudices and preferences to the thing being viewed.

The play is set in the Texas panhandle. At its opening, Keith McCann, a handsome and stalwart young sheriff, is trying to persuade Malia Hunter to come over to the jail and pick up her no-good, drunken husband, Miller Lee. Malia, who's hanging out the wash, would just as soon Miller stayed where he was. Their young son, Eric, has taken to hanging out in the doghouse to avoid his father, and she herself could use a little peace. Some of the dialogue here is fresh or amusing, some flat. All in all, there's a lot more of it than action. Until Miller himself appears. He's not physically abusive, it turns out, just given to stumbling about, alternately yelling, planning to snatch his son and go to Colorado, and whining that nobody loves him. Malia does love him, actually. Even after she's fallen for Keith and he for her, she stays with Miller.

One of the play's problems is that we aren't shown Miller's humanity until the second act, nor are we given any scenes between the couple that aren't loudly adversarial. It's impossible to figure out why Malia stays with him. Is it love? Pity? Masochism? Surely she can't believe that Eric is better off with an intact but miserable birth family than he would be with her and Keith? On one level, we accept her paralysis. It seems true and sad, mirroring what we know about abusive households. Vaughan deserves credit for avoiding cliche here. Miller is a shouter, not a hitter. Malia -- who can also be difficult -- sometimes initiates the fights. But there's another sense in which we don't ever feel we understand her; she calls to our curiosity rather than our empathy. The play might have worked better, in fact, if the audience had been afraid for her and Eric's physical safety. In one uneasy and effective scene, Miller nails shut the doghouse where Eric has taken refuge. But most of the time, Miller seems pathetic and contemptible rather than frightening.

David Russell and Ellen Orloff Gauthier in The Rest 
of the Night.
David Russell and Ellen Orloff Gauthier in The Rest of the Night.

Details

Presented by Curious Theatre Company
Through May 10
303-623-0524, www.curiousatacoma.com
Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street

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The second act is quieter then the first -- less shouting and fling-about movement, fewer neck muscles cording in enraged tension -- and it works better. We understand that what has kept Miller and Malia together through all the fury and discordance is something like love. In the last scene, a college-bound Eric talks to Keith, angrily accusing the older man of having provided hope where there should have been none, then softening and admitting that it was Keith's fatherly presence that had sustained him over all these years. Much of this, along with the wistful, what-might-have-been speculations of Keith and Malia, is genuinely moving.

David Russell gives himself fully to the thankless role of Miller; I didn't warm to Ellen Orloff Gauthier's jittery Malia until she calmed down in the second act, but that may have been intentional on the playwright's part. Evan Barber gives an understated performance as the young Eric, and Todd Webster is energetic and convincing as his grown-up counterpart, though he occasionally flirts with self-pity. The production values -- William Temple Davis's lighting, Dan Guyette's scenery and Kevin Trainor's mournful, country-style songs -- are terrific, and Chris Reid brings so much feeling and conviction to the role of Keith that he ransoms almost all of the script's weaknesses and underlines everything resonant and promising within it.

 
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