Addison — The lights come up and John, wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie, sits in a claw-footed bathtub, liquor bottles strewn around him. It’s not until a little way into Cody Lucas’ play Sweet Chariot that we realize there’s water in that tub—or, at least for those of us not sitting in the close seats in the Main Stage theater for Out of the Loop Fringe Festival (it was moved from the original Stone Cottage location, presumably because of the difficulties of storing the tub offstage).
Remarkably, actor Billy Baraw sits in that water for the entire 45 minutes. Lucas’ play, co-directed by him and Tashina Richardson for Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s entry in the festival, will probably not be voted an audience favorite as it breaks theatrical conventions, the big one being its stillness. Aside from the occasional water slosh and John pulling the whiskey bottle to his mouth, there is no movement.
Make no mistake, Sweet Chariot is ultra-depressing—John is contemplating suicide—and it’s a tough sit-through. But it’s oddly fascinating. Lucas’ dialogue can be cumbersome, but there’s an occasional poetic passage. It’s not quite clear what has driven John to this point, but he conjures vivid images as he dwells on his hopelessness and debates with himself what to do about it.
What the play beautifully taps into is the undeniable emotional connection to music. All throughout, John listens to the late-night show on KBBL (K Babble), as DJ Boyd Worley (voiced by Morgan Hillan) plays an eclectic mix of music and, in a device that could have come from The Twilight Zone, talks to John through the radio.
You know it’s going to be depressing when the first song, played in full before John ever says anything, is Johnny and June Carter Cash’s cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” Lucas’ writing is the most unwieldy with Worley’s dialogue, as he goes out of his way to give backstory to the songs and draw other connections. Hillan’s soothing, steady voice—reminiscent of Gregg McVicar on the public radio show Undercurrents—adds to the somnambulant tone.
But as depressing as much of the music is—in addition to the songs like Bruce Springsteen's "The River," there are mentions of thematically appropriate tunes like The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and references to everyone from James Taylor to Dolly Parton to Madonna—it’s clear that it’s not just Worley’s out-of-radio advice that keeps John from taking the plunge. It’s the significance of music itself.
If you’re a true lover of music, nothing else can get you through some dark points of your life. Alcohol might temporarily assuage, and talking to another human works for some; but a song or passage of music that you connect with on a deeper level has strange, cathartic power.
Baraw, in a soul-bearing performance made even more remarkable because he's sitting in one place the entire time, not to mention in a tub of water, revels in that. The bathtub might physically stand in for the titular chariot that, as the well-known spiritual says, is “coming forth to carry me home”; but it’s the healing properties of music that save the soul.
» Sweet Chariot repeats at 9 p.m. Friday, March 14 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15 on the Main Stage at the Addison Theatre Centre
» WaterTower Theatre's 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival is 10 days of live theater, dance, music and visual art. To see the full schedule, go here.