Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Oct. 22, 2004
NightswimState Theater, through Oct. 24
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min
History is not just the grand sweep of events, the tide of times past washing over the face of the world. History can be is microcosmic as well as macrocosmic, something personal and intimate. Certainly, the past is what makes the present, both on a large and small scale, but the past is more than a series of events; it's a mold that shapes us, a mold formed by the people we know and, more often than not, love. History, as we commonly think of it, is a tale of countries and nations and governments, but much more importantly, history is a tale of our friends, our associates, our familiars. Macrocosmic history may make us what we are as a country, but it is the microcosmic history of our personal lives that makes us who we are as people.
History and friendship are the fulcrum on which the play Nightswim balances. Local playwright Steve Moore focuses on the present and the future by looking at Austin's past through the eyes of three great and famous friends: Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, and Walter Webb, the gentlemen depicted in the Philosophers' Rock statue that stands at the entrance to Barton Springs Pool.
As the play is more impressionistic than realistic, there isn't much plot to speak of. It begins shortly after Bedichek's death, when Webb and Dobie meet at the pool to mourn him. A character named X appears to usher the deceased Bedichek into the afterlife, telling him that after death a person passes through the place he loved most. Bedichek sees his mourning friends and, rather than passing on, decides to stay at the Springs, ostensibly to nurse a sick bird back to health. He ends up haunting the place for years, watching his friends come and go, both in the flesh and in dreams, as the final acts of all their lives play out.
For this world-premiere production by the State Theater Company, director Katie Pearl is fortunate in many ways. Christopher McCollum's simple yet dynamic set design evokes the Springs using little more than platforms raked in forced perspective, an enormous tub of water, a large tree, and, most strikingly, dozens of towels in varying shades of green, laid flat for absent bathers. Lighting designer Matt Frey changes the scene from lonely night to gorgeous day on multiple occasions, and designer Lindsay Jones produces a rich and varied soundscape, summoning a natural world and a dream world with equal ease and effectiveness. But Pearl is most fortunate in her casting. Lowell Bartholomee as X, Douglas Taylor as Dobie, and Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires as Webb all have moments worth watching. Still, it is David Stahl as Bedichek who steals the show. With his owlish glasses and hunched, dweebish demeanor, Stahl's Bedichek is a creature of intense humanity, and it is his journey that the play really is about, the journey that all of us must take alone, away from our friends, away from the world, right to the banks of the greatest change of all.
Should you go, chase all realistic thinking from your mind. None of the actors are the age of the men they play, and few overt attempts to carry the age are made. Pearl and Moore seem to be trying to capture the easygoing ambience of a day (umm, a few years?) spent at the Springs; thus the tempo is leisurely, to say the least. But there are stunning moments of overwhelming joy and terrible beauty: Bedichek's soggy entrance, Webb telling a story as he stitches himself with string to his dead friend, Bedichek splashing like a child in the pool. So if you can handle a production that takes its own sweet time in looking at where we are now, where we've been, and where we might be going, then you couldn't do much better than to take a dip in these cool and subtle waters. After all, as a very wise man says in this very profound play: "Forfeit the past, forfeit the present, and you forfeit the future as a house of hope."