I've had a soft spot for truckers ever since my hitchhiking hippie days: It was often trucks that stopped at the on-ramps of those teeming California highways, and they'd take you long, helpful distances. I remember a particularly fatherly trucker who wouldn't let me pay for food when we stopped at a truck stop, talked passionately about rock and roll, showed me the comfortable bed he'd set up for himself behind the driver's seat — it was almost a tiny room — and let me curl up on it when I got sleepy. And no, neither he nor any other trucker I encountered ever tried anything nasty, though they did flirt. I had romantic notions about life on the road, fed by childhood glimpses of horse-drawn gypsy caravans rattling along English country roads, and an idea that truckers were aces — where would America be without their ceaseless peregrinations along our highways carrying foodstuffs, goods and raw materials? A story I read in the Denver papers some years ago confirmed my bias. It told of a trucker who had deliberately swerved off the road — even over a bridge, I think — to avoid hitting a woman in a stalled car. He couldn't do otherwise, he'd said later. He'd seen the terror on the woman's face as his goliath of a vehicle roared toward her. (The company's insurance nonetheless refused to pay for his medical care because the accident was avoidable.)
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Director-author Randal Myler teamed up with writer and musical director Dan Wheetman for Mama Hated Diesels, which has its world premiere at the Denver Center Theatre Company. Myler has a feeling for the lives of working people, having created, among many other plays, It Ain't Nothing But the Blues and Fire on the Mountain, a stunning evocation of the lives of coal miners. For this piece, he interviewed truckers all over the country, including Charles Weldon, one of his own actors, who made a living driving for three years. But either these men and women were taciturn types, not given to self-reflection, or there really isn't much of a story in trucking. Mama Hated Diesels makes for a pleasant evening, but there's not much to it. We meet a woman who left her abusive husband, secretly enrolled in a truck-driving class and took to the road. We learn that the prostitutes who frequent truck stops are called lot lizards; that it takes guts and skill to drive a big rig, particularly in bad weather; that it's hard on your family when you spend weeks on the road; that a lot of truckers take uppers to stay awake; and that other drivers — apparently unaware of how hard it is to maneuver or stop a truck — do idiotically dangerous things in their cars, like dressing or, in one woman's case, painting her toenails. Some of the jokes are made funnier than they have any right to be by the actors' skilled delivery, and there are some interesting observations about the way trucking has changed. Like so many small-business people, independent truckers have been forced out of business by huge corporations. Now, instead of being independent — if sleep-deprived and pressed to deliver on time — kings of the road, they find every activity, from meals to bathroom breaks, humiliatingly clocked by overseers. But we're told all of this rather than being shown the effects, which makes the piece oddly flat. There's no overarching story or on-stage conflict, and the pieces provided aren't resonant enough to weave a compelling tapestry.
Still, there are nice portrayals (if a little too ingratiating) by some of the Denver Center's strongest actors: Kathleen M. Brady, Jeanne Paulsen, Charles Weldon, Mike Hartman. And best of all, there's Brad Bellamy, with his droopy, everyman looks and his unerring instinct for just how to pitch and time his lines. And then there are the songs, delivered by a terrific group of singers and musicians (Rhonda Coullet, Jason Edwards, David P. Jackson, James Cruce, David Miles Keenan). Every time the action flags, an evocative number punches it back up again: "Momma Was a Rock (Daddy Was a Rolling Stone)"; "Rainy Night in Georgia"; "White Line Fever." But perhaps the most eloquent element is provided by photographer Jim Steinberg, whose slides are shown on two large screens behind the action. Sunrises and sunsets, the grays and silvers of misty days, rushing great highways and endless stretches of flat — they tell you everything you need to know about the eerie beauty of these looming dinosaurs of the road and the loneliness and joy of the trucker's life.
Mama Hated Diesels
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 9, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.