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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 498-500
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The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. By Naomi Wallace. Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley, California. 18 January 2002.
Naomi Wallace, an American poet and playwright living in Yorkshire, has been a well-kept secret in her native country despite ten years of recognition in Britain, a 1997 Obie Award, a cult following for her independent film Lawn Dogs, and a 1999 MacArthur genius grant. Lately, however, her plays—which combine heightened language and historical settings with a left-wing sensibility—have been gaining greater currency with audiences in the United States. In the Heart of America (a Gulf War drama) and One Flea Spare (set in seventeenth-century London) are particular favorites on university campuses and regional theatres. Wallace's new works are consistently featured at the Humana Festival and despite (or perhaps because of) recent national events, Atlanta recently went ahead with a city-wide festival devoted to her work, with its recurring themes of civil disturbance, youth violence, racism, homophobia, war, and unexpected disasters. [End Page 498]
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, set in Wallace's native Kentucky, shares certain themes and characters with her other plays: a ghost girl, a sense of dislocation and impending doom, a sharp generational divide, and a fascination with the gap between the hard surfaces of life and the soft but powerful forces of the body. Revived in the Aurora Theatre Company's new 150-seat space in Berkeley, this five-character play, directed by Søren Oliver was well suited to an intimate venue, which involves the audience in the action played closely above, before, and around them.
Wallace's depression-era play about the mysterious death of seventeen-year old tomboy Pace Creagan (Jennifer Wagner) begins and ends in a jail cell, where Dalton Chance (Ian Scott McGregor Jurcso), the fifteen-year-old boy who has befriended Pace, is awaiting trial. It moves in a non-linear fashion, revealing small but telling secrets, and heightening the audience's awareness of the claustrophobic historical moment—like our own—which encloses, entraps, and separates each individual in a landscape suddenly transformed by unexpected events.
In a dream-like recreation of the events leading to Pace's death, the audience sees the two teens make a pact to play chicken with the powerful 7:10 train that speeds over a bridge near their little town every day. This dare is a twisted attempt to escape the no-exit life of Pope Lick's older generation, ably represented by Chas Weaver (Jack Powell), the town jailer, whose own son died on the trestle, and Dalton's parents: Dray (Ron Reeves Hiatt), who breaks dishes to avoid battering his wife and son, and Gin (Jessica Powell), who fights fiercely for her family's survival. Can Dalton, his mother's own good boy, follow Pace's lead and learn to question an existence in which new shoes are bought only for funerals? What happens to parents who have nothing to give their sons and daughters? What happens to a country based on an economy which eats up bodies in thankless labor and discards [End Page 499] them when they are old or disabled? Is challenging 153 tons of steel an act of life-affirming subversion or pure self-destruction? These are the questions raised, but never answered, in Wallace's disturbing drama.
In the Aurora Theatre production, Director Oliver deftly employs focused details to bring a past era to life. Jon Retsky's lighting features the recurring motif of shadow puppetry by candlelight, while Jocelyn Leiser's costumes of sepia and faded denim work well with the minimalist set designed by Melpomene Katakalos. Clifford Carruthers's sound design (which incorporates a haunting solo from Appalachian Journey) evokes an atmosphere of edginess, although the effects for the death scene seem unnecessarily melodramatic. The actors perform the complex language and fragmented action with clarity and address. Hiatt brings a finely-tuned desperation to the role of the father, while Jessica Powell suggests the humor...