Sunday, November 29, 2009

Crushing Grain; Living Strong

DISCLAIMER, BLAH BLAH BLAH: This is not an official review, nor was it solicited by any news outlet or anyone associated with the production.

Dallas, Texas is famous for many reasons: its football team (and said team's cheerleaders), killer barbecue, an excellent local music scene...heck, there was even a television show named for it. However, one of the most important events that helped put "Big D" on the map happened 46 years ago this month: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

This historic event and the man held responsible for it, Lee Harvey Oswald, have been the subject of conspiracy theories, books written, movies and television shows name it. It also appears to be the main plot line in the play Crushing Grain, written, directed and produced by Level Ground Arts founder Bill Fountain. The production is currently playing at the Dallas Hub Theatre in Deep Ellum, a mere stone's throw away from the location of the events of that horrible day in 1963.

As the audience seats itself in the Hub's small, intimate black box setting, a man in white pajamas is laying facedown on the stage. This man might be Lee Harvey Oswald, and he might be Alec Hidell. He may be in a psychiatric hospital in Russia or he may be in a movie theatre in Oak Cliff. The doctors, the other patients, all others he encounters...they may be real or they may be all in his head. The audience must watch as Oswald/Hidell struggles to desperately uncover the past (or is it the future?) and answer the questions that those in power are trying to torture out of him — or is he just torturing himself?

But wait. Is this play really about Oswald or the Kennedy assassination at all? Why are the actors suddenly breaking the fourth wall to talk about watching a husband, a father, a brother...dying of cancer? Because the truth is, that's really what this play is about. It is about the suspension of reality by those dealing with cancer in their personal lives, whether directly or indirectly. The monologues are heartbreakingly real. As the granddaughter of a wonderful man lost to cancer and the niece of a brave woman losing to cancer, I found these moments in the play almost unbearable.

In a recent interview with Elaine Liner of Theater Jones, playwright Fountain is quoted as saying, "[the play is] about what was happening to my life as my dad started to slip away from me." The Oswald/Hidell storyline really appears to function as a vehicle through which a cancer patient attempts to make his own stamp on history before leaving this earth. Historical reality becomes obsolete as personal validation and the desperate need to have mattered somehow gives way to surreality.

Admittedly, this may not be as obvious or clear to those lucky enough to have never been affected by the evil "c-word." Perhaps director's notes in the program may have helped those in the audience who came in to see a play about Oswald, lone gunman/conspiracy theories, and the infamous event that put our fair city in the public eye on that fateful day.

Either way, the play is wonderfully written and earnestly performed by a group of dedicated actors led by Nick Jones as Oswald/Hidell. Jones, who eerily resembles Lee Harvey Oswald, carries the show on his fully capable shoulders. He conveys the arrogance of Oswald but his frustration as Hidell is palpable as he desperately claws his way towards the answers his torturers/doctors demand. He borders on shrill at times, which makes his lines a bit difficult to understand, but he never relaxes for one second. It is both thrilling and exhausting to watch.

Ken Long as The General and one of Hidell's "roomates" has an incredible presence onstage, and one can't help but be drawn to him and hang upon his every word. Daylon Walton gets awkward laughs (the good kind) as The Soldier, and Robert G. Shores as The Leader is compelling, even as an "audience member" to the action onstage. The spot-on accent he uses provides an ominous foreshadowing of what will happen to his character, and it's hard not to keep him in the corner of your eye at all times. Fountain himself makes a cameo as The Agent, and provides the stuff of nightmares during the waterboard torture scene.

The rest of the cast is equally talented; there are no weak links. Even actors who never say a word create very strong presences as silent torturers, special agents, et al.

There are only two opportunties left to see this play (December 4th and 5th), so do yourself a favor and reserve your tickets. It's not often enough that original works are performed and heavily publicized, so take this opportunity to witness something that is real and that meant (and still means) something to someone. Seize the chance to be a part of something new being premiered. Support the local playwrights that pour their hearts out and bare their souls to the public in such a way. If nothing else, attend just to see how such a cataclysmic event in our city and our nation's history can be used as the basis for something surreal and outside its usual box. You won't be sorry.

REMAINING SHOW TIMES: Friday, December 4th and Saturday, December 5th at 8pm

PLACE: Dallas Hub Theatre 2809 Canton St. (Deep Ellum) Dallas, TX 75226

COST: $15 - $20 General Seating, doors open half-hour prior to performance

TELEPHONE: 214-749- 7010 or 877-238-5596 for reservations

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