Dallas — A thin, work-muscled man in dirty long johns, his eyes bright with dismay and anger, is pushed into a cage-like jail cell by a heavy, unsmiling man twice his size. Light floods the adjoining stage where a roughshod circle of men and women spin a crude conjuring bucket lamp stamped with symbols to determine the fate of the prisoner in the opening scene of The Felling, written, directed and starring Mitchell Parrack in its world premiere at Ochre House Theater.
The first scene carries us to a log cabin, clearly beyond the pale of society’s laws and conventions, where a frontier family clustered around a table in a log cabin is coming to grips with the recent rape and murder of the family matriarch, referred to by all nine characters as “Mother.” Ochre House Artistic Director Matthew Posey’s set design is intimate and detailed, with a hand-hewn wooden sideboard and a tree truck as the kitchen table support. Justin Locklear’s music design includes a murmuring and chanting, not quite speaking in tongues, and not quite prayer when the group takes their “libations” of “panther juice” and sits down to divine the truth.
The dramatic action moves back and forth from the barred homemade cage, where the poetic shaman Alaister (the always adroit and charismatic Parrack) awaits the verdict of his brothers, sisters, in-laws and the occasional whore. What must they do to avenge the crime? “The family name is burning in Hell as we speak,” says Palmer.
Parrack illuminates a telling frontier moment. In a famous passage from Hector St. John Crevecoeur’s 1782 essay, “What is an American,” the writer describes life on the edge of the western settlement of the continent as “restless, migratory, and brutal.” They lived as much by hunting as by farming, he tells us of these early pioneers. Protecting their crops and stock against wild animals put the gun in their hands, and “once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsocial.” They exhibit a “strange sort of lawless profligacy,” and their children, having no models excerpt their parents, “grow up a mongrel breed, half civilized, half savage.” Parrack captures the peculiar blend of biblical and colloquial language through which this cult-like clan communicates.
We understand from the opening scene that Alaister has been accused of murdering his mother, but the complications and dramatic revelations of the play are centered on the question of “what happened first,” as jailor and eldest son Palmer (a grave, burdened Kevin Grammer) asks his quivering brother. Who actually defiled the mother of them all.
In archaic language, heightened by occasional bursts of big-word erudition by a driven Alaister expounding on the “vicissitudes of life,” the tribal jurisdiction reveals familiar archetypal tribal characters, here outfitted in filthy, oily buckskin, white homespun and grimy waist-sheering bustiers. Costume designer Amie Carson almost makes us smell the grime and dirt carried in the very clothing of this unwashed crew, and the pretensions of the womenfolk to cleanness.
Early on, the powerful female leader Maynie (a forthright Carla Parker) urges a speedy decision, as the clan plays a form of Russian roulette with a loaded pistol and a deck of cards. The sexual energy swings to the hunter and tanner Farber (a physically powerful, bearded, cold-eyed Marcus Stimac) and his need for “release”, whether with his mate Polly (a trembling, beauteous Danielle Bondurant) or the easy prostitute Peach (a raw, seductive Cassie Baum). In a post-orgasmic scene at Alaister’s cage, the brothers convulse in fits of mirthless laughter that make us shiver. What is their bond?
The youngest brother, Toots (a touchingly hapless Trenton Stephenson), is the runt and joker of the clan, who never gets the punchline quite right, until the weight of another’s confession propels him to reveal the “riddle,” in a classic fool-knows-all scene.
Esdras (a coolly bemused Justin Locklear) is the lost voice of reason, one ear turned to his querulous mate Adrienne (a humorously masculine Angela Davis).
The frightening and personal justice sought and carried out by this tribunal throws off a fascinating and frightening light. Parrack’s sometime puckish, and finally desperate Alaister is the embodiment of the human quandary. He appeals to his ancestral judges as they deliberate the family’s legacy and his own life, but he cannot stop the fateful end he has triggered through his effort to do his mother’ bidding and cleanse the tribal name of sin.
The Felling, while not perhaps fully found in its exploration of such profound themes, is a rich night of theater, ringing with jangling language and a lesson that will resonate long after the performance.