Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 10, 2004
Hyde Park Theatre, through Sept. 25
Running Time: 1 hr, 50 min
People are always telling Ham how highly they've always regarded him. In scene after scene of Hans Frank's new play, someone makes a point of letting the title character know how he's earned their respect, by his tours of duty in Vietnam, his years mining coal, his service as a county commissioner. Unfortunately for Ham, these commendations always come with a large disapproving and threatening "but" attached, as "You've always had my admiration, but if you go ahead with what you want to do, you're gonna screw things up royally." Every one of these folks has something they want him to do, and they make it clear that if he doesn't, there'll be hell to pay.
Ham appears to be a pretty decent guy, trying to do right by the folks in Meigs County, working for passage of a state law that forces the mining interests to be responsible for the environmental havoc they wreak, especially in his southeastern corner of Ohio. But he is at odds with just about everybody he runs into here: the Democratic Party hard-liner who castigates him for siding with Republicans on a recent issue; a couple of smug thugs from the coal company; the woman with whom he's having an affair who wants him to commit to her so she can leave her husband; the town sheriff, who's in the pocket of the power brokers and has his personal reasons for wanting to get even with Ham; the powerful U.S. senator who sees Ham's bill as a threat to the political status quo. One by one, they put the squeeze on Ham, subjecting him to the kind of pressure that he knew deep in the mines of Appalachia, the kind that made miners feel, as Ham puts it, like a fat woman is squatting on your chest, the kind of pressure that, over time, turns plants into coal.
It takes awhile for those of us in the audience of Hyde Park Theatre's premiere production to feel this pressure as intensely as Ham does. Frank sets us in a part of Ohio that's on the northern edge of the South, and director Ken Webster creates a laid-back, still atmosphere in which the characters go about their business with that region's leisurely air and courtliness. When Melba, a woman with a mentally challenged grandson, asks Ham to look out for him, Carra Martinez drawls out the request while languidly tossing back jelly jar after jelly jar of whiskey. When the Mutt-and-Jeff team of Crabshaw and J.T. show up at Ham's to lean on him for the coal company, Joel Gross and Scott Daigle do so with broad, toothy grins and the syrupy politesse of antebellum aristocrats. Sheriff Bird, in the person of Joel Citty, might be in Mayberry, given his down-home posture and sensibility. Sen. Pancake nonchalantly putts golf balls and shares a bottle with Ham as he flexes his political muscle with him, David Jones radiating paternal care. Hell, Ham himself, as portrayed by Ken Bradley, seems pretty much just a good-natured good ol' boy, who's happy to be sitting with his pack of Red Man, spinning a country yarn.
That is, until he's squeezed just a little too hard. Then he springs at his foe with a speed and ferocity that's startling, as when he turns on his lover Candy Andrea Skola, conveying the deep frustration of a woman trapped between a loveless husband and a secretive paramour and wraps his fingers around her throat. Then Bradley reveals the legacy of his character's Vietnam past and the violence of which he's capable. Webster invests these moments with a hair-trigger tension through which the pressure on Ham becomes palpable for us. As events unfold, as we witness threat upon threat made before the stained wall that backs all of designer Paul Davis' multiple settings, we see the pressure on Ham creating something dark in him, something that may cover any good he is trying to do. As we slouch toward an election, the play shows us that politics can leave one's hands black as coal but with no way of washing them clean.