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'The Twelfth Labor'

This family drama could be truly powerful, but it's too long and weighed down by too many ideas

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Aug. 24, 2012

Heartland prophesier: Erin Treadway as Cleo
Heartland prophesier: Erin Treadway as Cleo

The Twelfth Labor

The Laboratory Theater at the McCallum Fine Arts Academy,
5600 Sunshine, 522-4045
www.tuttotheatre.org
Through Sept. 1
Running time: 3 hr.

Midwestern farm families are always great fodder for stories. The isolation, the harsh conditions, the intense expectations of small-town society – all combine to place immense pressures on the nuclear family until something breaks.

The Prater family in Leegrid Stevens' The Twelfth Labor, now receiving its premiere production from Tutto Theatre Company under the direction of Gary Jaffe, exists in this frustrating environment. In the 1940s, the Praters are scrapping to survive on their mud pit of a farm as they wait, perhaps quixotically, for the return of their father, Forrest (Skip Johnson), from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Cleo (Erin Treadway) longs for her father's return. She experiences a fantastical sort of intellectual disability; her understanding of the world is reduced and her language peppered with malapropisms, yet she has vivid and prophetic dreams. Her mother Esther (Rebecca Robinson) – a hard-as-nails matriarch – remarks that Cleo's dreams come true, but you never know how that will happen until they already have.

It gradually becomes clear that, in their father's absence, the family has been guarding a secret. A child was born to the family in shame, and Esther has gone and continues to go to great extremes to guard what little dignity the Praters have left.

This is a recipe for a powerful play, made more so by the reference to the legend of Hercules and the 12 labors undertaken by that hero. Overall, the acting is engaging, with strong performances from several supporting players. Stevens shows a knack for creating a style of language that is at once fascinating and completely clear. Ia Ensterä's chaotic set design is fabulous.

The dish, however, needs to cook longer. Specifically, the play is simply too long. Without several brave cuts, the script's clarity suffers and it can't stand up under the weight of all its ideas.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Forrest's monologue during a dream sequence. He speaks at length about his time in the war, but his long, long story does little to illuminate or drive the plot forward. If considered separately, the writing is pretty good, but great language alone is not enough to carry the day.

This is especially true when the language isn't consistent. For part of the play, the characters speak as Cleo hears them, with garbled words and strange sentences. Sometimes the Cleospeak indicates that we're experiencing the story from her perspective – but that rule isn't followed consistently, and it isn't clear why characters speak Cleo-style some of the time but not others.

In its current state, The Twelfth Labor is a swirling mess of great ideas: classical allusion, powerful imagery, intriguing language, and more. I hope the play will receive more development and that more can be done to establish how its manifold elements relate to one another.

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