We’re in a trailer at the end of a century. Star-crossed lovers meet again, and mourn among the ruins of what could have been. Here, in this not-quite-contemporary castoff of a place, CoHo Productions and co-producers Val Landrum and Brandon Woolley have brought MacArthur Fellowship and Obie award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s The Few to the stage.
The trailer is an off-the-cuff irritation of cheap floral print wallpaper, a child’s search for comfort with the long-time fleecing of design. It’s not rare: there’s a whole slate of American aesthetic in the Walmarts, Targets, and Tuesday Mornings that reproduce designs almost ad hoc, but without the energy of the originals. The rub, the real issue, comes down to not having any time. Our great American sage, Benjamin Franklin did not write his Poor Richard’s Almanac without bearing in mind that time and money are always in equal competition. While The Few barely shows the anxiety and paranoia surrounding the end of 1999 with the feared computer collapse of a system we barely understood, it captures the way in which time is fleeting between people. The ’90s was a hyper decade, when analog became digital, and the play asks as an undercurrent: if our historians, cultural, art, history can barely keep up with the new paper trail, what happens with our emotional history? That backwater, the mystery that inflects a meaning into the facts: where do the minutes of our soul confessions go, as time makes its mean parade?
The Few features a powerhouse of Portland talent in acting, direction and all of the behind-the-scenes work that makes a play. The plot is simple: an old lover returns, only to find out you can never go home.
Landrum plays QZ. She’s got snug-fitting jeans and slightly styled ponytailed hair, and is cantankerous by reason. She’s had her time in the trenches and captures the burned-out working-class girl with an empathy and realism. Landrum’s got the pursed lips that hide an overbite and slight dimple when she’s confronted with an exasperating emotional situation. It’s the overworked beauty of the girl next door who tries to slam shut the heartache of the past. The other characters follow suit: it’s one person against the world, but they’ve got emotional baggage, both literal and cultural.
Tim Stapleton makes his hallmark set: lucid and camera-ready, with soft lighting that pokes out from a few props of colors here and there; a peachy pastel glow and a once-and-again complementary aqua color. He has a way that is at one time just a few symbolic props, but also a time-period-accurate living space for the characters. It’s an elegant and subdued frame of reference that gives life to the stage, but overall promotes a backstory and a way for the actors to use the stage as a crux to tell their story by. Stapleton is an Edward Kienholz of scenic design: real enough to believe, creating the platform by which actors can express, but with a sense of period objects that takes a careful look at their use and meaning.
The stage is framed by metal. An old, but useful, filing cabinet stands center. A Mr. Coffee maker stained by years of abuse with Folger’s brand grind is balanced on a microwave. A few Dell PCs and the ligaments of particle-board desks carve out the rest of the room. Here resides The Few, a newspaper devoted to the unsung heroes of the highway, the semi-truck drivers. On paper it’s an awkward ensemble, but if you transpose August Wilson, specifically his play Jitney, the backdrop becomes at one time disposable and, in the grand tradition of playwrights, a space where the words of everyday people are captured. The ragtag and mundane are lifted up by being suspiciously accurate in their words and responses and lifted further as important, a human condition, in a locus to which only theater can bring an exalted experience. We are in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, Idaho, that specific arid atmosphere of the plain speakers, wide-open skies and a little contempt for pomp and circumstance.
Michael O’Connell is Brian. We’ve seen him a few times ordering pies at Jubitz stops. He needs a haircut, a wash and a shave. Brian has no surface vanity: he is what he is, and like the men he’s come from, he’s demanding. Romance requires a give-and-take, a great bargaining to set the frames of wheels in motion. The long stretches of Idaho and truck driving have reinforced that Brian is just a man, a man who constantly fails because he can’t see that his masculinity is not enough to make a relationship, as friend or romantic. Like water dissolving salt, we watch Brian unable and unwilling to reach beyond his social construct: he’s the ultimate in machismo, declaring that a man without emotion, but full of drive, can just make his way in the world, without any responsibility to those with whom he binds. He’s so caught up in himself, he can’t see anything real before him. He’s tried to reach out from beyond his veil, but he’s too sensitive, not strong enough to accept the loss that goes with trusting.
Matthew, the paper’s assistant, is played brilliantly by Caleb Sohigian, who is the younger stand in for the playwright. He’s the high-minded and etiquette-bearing gay youth, who stakes justice in knowing the specific terms of decorum: we have our political and emotional differences, but up against an authority of manners, we faint like falling blossoms in the sun. Sohigian plays the young men who lie in wait for their right time to come out, as they build a wall of strength inside. It’s the looking up and outwards, the practicing of English grammar, the history-soaking blankets of pop culture as relevant. It is being an authority. He is the outsider, who can know more, make more, become a foil for the status quo.
There is an easiness to all the destruction that The Few paints in real time. It’s the unravelling of relationships. The late ’90s were drowned in self-sacrifice of one kind or another. No one could quite make out who they were and where they were going, and in the face of changing technology, it all seemed baffling. Here in this mess, the most striking scene of the play happens when Matthew and Brian get into an office showdown with a BB gun. They prance, they arc, they circle and jump from furniture piece to furniture piece. Most every boy in Idaho at the age of 9 or so learns to shoot a gun, and so this is not just a gleeful moment to balance out the tension of the play, but a nod to the silver screen westerns of long ago – the shootout at noon, but a lesser cavalier dueling in a 300-square-foot space.
The grand irony (the ’90s was the indisputable decade of hellbent irony in the form of nostalgia) is that none of the three, QZ, Brian or Matthew, can communicate well, except on paper. In a way they become a premonition of the virtual world to come, where all the intense emotions such as love, longing, aching can only be typed out and delivered, hardly said or shown.
The Few continues through April 16 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.