As the Acoma Center's house lights dim, a techno-musical display fades to shadowy silence. Then a young man appears at the edge of the stage and, draped by a backdrop of thousands of stars, stares straight ahead while a disembodied voice intones, "What's your history?" A few scenes later, the youth trades adolescent vulgarities and feigns general disinterest with a couple of newfound "friends" whose baggy-pants outfits are the kind that prompt adults to turn their backs in quiet disgust. As Praying for Rain continues to unfold in sometimes jarring, sometimes deliberative fashion, audience members are forced to deal with an array of sights and sounds that disturb as much as they intrigue.
Robert Lewis Vaughan's work, which examines problems of communication and youth violence as they manifest themselves in a small town near the Garden of the Gods, is being given its world premiere by Denver's Curious Theatre Company. Through several strong portrayals, innovative design choices and director Chip Walton's astute approach, the near-two-hour show lends some insight to prevailing social issues at a time when public discussion of them has been mired in a swampy mix of acrimony and sanctimony. While a few painfully preachy scenes in Act Two cry out for some serious doctoring, Walton and company plumb the complexity of the subject matter during less realistic, more transcendent passages. Especially those that traverse the set's many rock formations (fashioned by scenic designer David Russell and scenic painter/sculptor Scott Thompson, and marvelously illuminated by lighting designer William Temple Davis).
In fact, the actors are at their best when immersed in highly charged confrontations that jump over space and time. The dilemma faced by a former football great turned bad seed, for instance, reaches its apotheosis during a scene in which two other characters -- one the ghost of his victim, the other a sometime romantic interest -- pepper him with hard questions and caustic ripostes. Trapped in a vortex of despair that's made all the worse by the young man's inability to comprehend what, exactly, landed him there, he earns both our sympathy and contempt when he says of his rank offense, "I know it was stupid!" Likewise, a climactic scene between the young man and his victim's wife resonates because their volatile, unforced exchange evokes a perpetrator's residual rancor and a victim's unwillingness to forgive. True, the scene's specific circumstances strain credulity (the confrontation occurs over a bare table in an unguarded prison room), but the emotional currency that passes between the pair evokes the maddening vagaries swirling around issues of crime and punishment.
Unfortunately, some of the relationships don't evolve with as much innate sense -- or sensibility. Dialogue laced with tangential references and simplistic moralizing seems intended to authenticate the proceedings, but only serves to dilute the overall message. For example, a remark comparing one character's tendency to nurture wayward souls to her habit of feeding stray animals is about as enlightening as sugary sitcom dialogue -- and, in the context of Vaughan's otherwise engaging drama, just as preposterous. Even though the characters' off-the-cuff pronouncements ring true now and then, none are as poignant as those moments that illuminate each character's motives.
And for the most part, the talented cast ably navigates the play's highs and lows without forsaking more moderate sentiments. Gene Gillette leads the company with a remarkably visceral portrait of Marc McGettrick, the athlete who winds up in trouble after a motorcycle accident strips him of his ability to compete on the field. At times sharply laconic and at others gently desperate, Gillette soldiers through several difficult scenes and invests others with admirable conviction. He's especially effective during Marc's moments with his former girlfriend, Erin, a role that's rendered with hard-edged compassion by Misti McBride. As Miss K, Marc's devoted teacher, Kathryn Gray imbues her portrait with a fair amount of straight-up humor and urgency. Dee Covington hits the right notes as Liz Penn, the outrage0d widow whose husband, adequately played by Chris Reid, finds himself on the wrong pile of rocks at the worst possible time. And Todd Webster and Craig Trout are convincing as a pair of small-town hoods.
Unlike a few pundits and politicos, Praying for Rain doesn't put forth compact, tidy answers to the problem of youth violence. What it does offer is a compelling exploration of the forces that influence an individual's choices, and of the proverbial lifelines -- be they familial, communal, religious or political -- that tragically slacken when society gives in to apathy, fear and self-doubt. Though the play doesn't scale the artistic heights to which it aspires, the ideas it examines are paramount enough. -- Lillie
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