You can feel Elizabeth Doss' new play rising from deep in her past and this land
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 19, 2011
The Yard at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282
Through Aug. 21
Running time: 2 hr.
"Everybody's lost!" bellows the deceased paterfamilias at his youngest. Like a backwoods Leonard Cohen, this gruff corpse in a gimme cap slings hard truths, smacking his boy upside the head with the wisdom that there's nothing special about not knowin' where you're goin'. So he ought not let his doubt about that keep him from leading his brothers and sisters to safety. See, dead Dad – who drunkenly stumbled into a dried-up well and is fossilizing into limestone as he speaks – sees a flood headed toward this drought-stricken patch of Central Texas and wants Evan to take his five older siblings to higher ground – specifically, to a chapel in Blanco. Turns out, though, that those siblings, who weren't in the well with Evan to hear his chat with their expired Pa, don't necessarily believe baby brother or cotton to him leading them on a trek far from home. They do follow him, but they aren't happy.
Much of Hillcountry Underbelly deals with the wanderings of this strained sextet. In their bare feet and raggedy clothes that look like cast-offs from a big-top Goodwill, they come off as the Joads' poor Texas relations. And as they shuffle across the baked Hill Country mourning the past – Pa, Ma, their dogs – and fretting about the future, they sound like the poor, wayfaring strangers of old, as forlorn as the plink of a mandolin.
As a displaced family, as refugees on a trail to they aren't sure where, as youth seeking their place in the world after a parent's death, these figures are most familiar. But playwright Elizabeth Doss gives them all fresh, quirky voices, as she did the characters in her debut drama, Murder Ballad Murder Mystery. This piece is less ambitious than that sprawling saga of ghost-faced killers, but it's more personal, rising from deep in Doss' past and the dusty soil where she grew up. You can sense how closely these people reflect her own kin, and as you sit in the yard of the Vortex with the vault of Texas sky above and the parched ground below, you feel their bond to the land in your bones.
Indeed, in Paper Chairs' world premiere production, the setting serves Doss' homegrown saga beautifully, keeping us in constant contact with not only that blessed Hill Country earth and sky but also the aridness that plagues the land these figures wander. Dust puffs up from their shambling feet, and when Noel Gaulin's shirtless Matthew – a roaring bear of a man, stiffened with rage – drops to the ground and gets up, dirt coats his back. And the thick night air, periodically broken by the barking of East Austin hounds, adds to the weight of these siblings' sorrowful ballads. Composed by Mark Stewart, the songs bear the simple, languid melodies of folk airs as well as all the ache that runs through them, an ache drawn forth in the actors' soulful twangs, particularly Stewart's troubled eldest brother Aaron and Jacob Trussell's anguished Evan. But it's at its most heartrending when sister Elly, stranded in quicksand, serenades a scorpion, and Jenn Hartmann's voice dips and swoops like a swallowtail on a starless night.
Despite its overarching melancholy, the play is long on laughs. Doss liberally spices the action with absurdity, and the cast, which includes Kelli Bland, Emily Tindall, and a brusquely paternal Robert Pierson as Pa, isn't shy about making the most of them. That's true, too, of the direction by Keri Boyd and Paper Chairs Artistic Director Dustin Wills, for whom the show is something of a farewell as he leaves to study directing at the Yale School of Drama. If we have to do without the restlessly inventive Wills for a bit, this is a fine show to remember him by.
In time, Hillcountry's meandering brood breaks up, one stopping at a bar to become an open mic star, one turning into a tree, three making a new home in ... well, that's best discovered in the show. They may have no better sense of where they are at the play's end than its beginning, but we know where their creator is. As a child of the Hill Country and as a playwright, Liz Doss is home.