Dallas — Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol continues a festive family tradition with lively songs, vibrant costumes and a large cast. You’d never know just an elevator ride away there’s a world premiere so different in scale and scope as to make the sixth floor seem like an undiscovered frontier.
But it is, theatrically speaking.
Clarkston, upstairs in the Studio Theatre space may seem small with three actors and only 90 minutes, but it’s one of the finest collaborations between a director, Davis McCallum, and a playwright, 2014 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Samuel D. Hunter, that you’re likely to see in here Big D.
As the lady at the talkback said, “We just don’t see things like that around here.”
Plot-wise it is nothing earth shatteringly new. Jake (Taylor Trensch) takes an overnight stocking job while tracing the trail of Lewis and Clark (of whom he is descended). He befriends Chris (Sam Lilja) who has a recovering meth-smoking mom, Trisha (Heidi Armbruster). The movement of the play takes place entirely inside of this triangle.
Lighting designer Eric Southern can reinforce the warehouse glare or take us out to the loading dock or even down behind the parking lot with equal ease. Set designer Andrew Boyce has given him a concrete colored cavernous canvas with a warehouse shelf that reads like some sort of castle gate of consumer goods.
It’s like an opera of the ordinary.
And director McCallum stages it with a cinematographer’s eye, ever cognizant of the subject’s relationship to their frame, in this case a well-known big box retailer, specifically. But more generally, a small town in a big country or the modern American West or the wild frontier of consumer culture or, in fact, any other contextualizations that the audience may recognize.
Playwright Hunter has a powerful way of wringing meaning out of all of the frames in which his characters find themselves trapped, literal and figurative. A few months ago, L.I.P. Service Productions had a careful production of Hunter’s The Whale about a 600-pound man on the couch in his apartment. It’s remarkable how moving a play with so little movement can be. Under McCallum and Hunter’s pristinely controlled gaze, everything has poetic potential—from shelving to cheese dip to a caught piece of caution tape fluttering in a chain link fence.
But it’s not just the physical spaces in which he is interested. Like a theatrical E. E. Cummings, playwright Hunter employs spaces that are otherwise overlooked.
By blowing through the cavernous gaps between people themselves, he sounds their resonances for us before gently, climactically closing the gap.
The evening is blessed by a cast committed to the zen-like clarity of the script. Leading the charge is Trensch as the scrawny, fish-out-of-water Jake. Trensch resolutely refuses to push. Contrary to his Broadway credits, this is as un-showy and honest of a performance as they come. Meeting him in the middle of America is Lilja as the country mouse, local boy. These two counter each other like chess players keeping the proceedings light enough for laughs without ruling out gasps. The tension is admirable especially considering things get physical between them early on in an inversion of the typical relationship arch.
Thrown into their spokes is Chris’ former teen mom, Trisha, played with simmering neediness by Armbruster. If there has to be a quibble to Hunter’s script it’s that Trisha isn’t as three dimensional as the men. It doesn’t help that the comely Armbruster with designer Jessica Pabst’s tasteful attire doesn’t cut as desperate of an outline as the text would suggest. In Dallas terms, she’s more NorthPark than Walmart. Fortunately, Armbruster can pack a punch when the time comes.
It’s not a tidy ending, it’s more lifelike and truthful than that, but hopeful, as well. After the play, for a few minutes, we’re all explorers in uncharted territory, even if we’re just really trying to head home.
This play may be smaller and spicier than the seasonal sugar downstairs, but after all, everything doesn’t have to be nice. After you take care of the familial obligations, come upstairs for something special just for yourself.
After all, the best things come in small packages.
» Read our Q&A with Samuel D. Hunter