Eventide adds a verse to the story that started with Plainsong

Eventide is a sequel of sorts to Plainsong, which the Denver Center Theatre Company produced two years ago. Plainsong was a triumph, a perfect marriage of production values and novelist Kent Haruf's words. A luminous and over-arching sky dominated the action, and Plainsong became less a story about individual people than about the web of interactions among these people and the way their lives wove the fabric of the place — the tiny town of Holt, Colorado, the vast prairie — and how the place, in turn, shaped those lives. There was something humble and generous about the production; it emanated a haunting, low-key music. But Eventide, set in the same place, is a different kettle of fish. Each character's story arc is somewhat predictable, the language is less evocative and the vision less far-reaching.

In Plainsong, we met two elderly brothers, awkward bachelor cattlemen, who took in a pregnant teenager after her mother had thrown her out of the house. Now that teenager is a poised young woman with a two-year-old child, and she's about to leave for college in Fort Collins. Tragedy soon strikes: Almost as soon as we remember who he is, one of the brothers, Harold, is killed by an angry bull, leaving his sibling, Raymond, to undertake the back-breaking work on the cattle ranch shattered and alone. Still, the story that gives this play much of its emotional juice concerns a mentally challenged couple, Betty and Luther, who are trying desperately to follow the instructions of their social worker and be good parents to their two small children, despite the fact that they can barely keep their own lives together even before Betty's violent uncle, Hoyt, moves in. Though they're beautifully played by David Ivers and Leslie O'Carroll, Betty and Luther are one-dimensional in a way that the characters in Plainsong were not. They represent pure pathos, just as Hoyt represents pure evil. And when Betty's daughter from a previous partnership shows up, she's a stereotype, too — just a sad, bad girl who adds nothing to the action.

Though the dialogue attempts to use the repetitions, small talk and simple assertions that characterize ordinary conversation, in many scenes it doesn't sound like people really talking. But when the script does rise to the occasion, it beautifully communicates the slow, quiet pace of rural Colorado life, the specificities of socializing, cattle ranching and learning to know — and sometimes take care of — one's neighbors.

All of the threads come together in the third act, partly because the drama of Betty and Luther's family comes to a head, ending in subdued tragedy, but even more because Raymond, in his own crusty and inimitable way, finally finds companionship and warmth. The scenes between him and Rose Tyler are genuinely funny and touching. Lauren Klein's Rose is everything you could want her to be: kindly and understanding, with just enough imperiousness to feel real and to get hidebound Raymond into her arms. It's Mike Hartman as Raymond, however, who really keeps the evening aloft. Hartman seems less to be playing the character than to have slipped into his skin — but he has to be careful, because there's more pathos to the script this time, and more sentimentality in the production. Raymond's complete ignorance of the world is more comical, and the good-heartedness behind his taciturn exterior more evident; the character could easily degenerate into the eccentric but warmhearted old codger we've seen in dozens of Disney movies. That it never does is testament to Hartman's deep integrity as an actor. A couple of key but smaller roles are far more superficially played.

Still, by the final scene, all of the elements have cohered. We're beginning to hear what Wordsworth called "the still, sad music of humanity," and to understand that the only solace in an uncertain world is human kindness.

 
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