'In the West': Living Portraits Avedon Would Die For
The original 'Austin Chronicle' review from Nov. 15, 1985
When the lights come up, we're face to face with a good ol' boy whose grin seems to stretch from here to Marfa. He's decked out in what must be his Sunday dress best a dirt-brown leisure suit with the collar of a colorful Western shirt carefully flattened over its, wide, angular lapels and his hair has that slicked-back sheen reserved for the Saturday night dance and the 11 o'clock service at the Baptist church. He has one hand extended in greeting, and his whole arm communicates an eagerness to grasp a like hand in a friendly shake. When he speaks, we discover the reason for his spit-and-polish appearance, his come-and-get-it grin. He is on a special mission: He is to greet the new neighbor.
"Mickey Cruthers," he introduces himself. He is, he announces proudly, the owner of Lone Star Guard Dogs. "Got a dog?" he asks. "I can get you a good deal on one." Though we never see the person Mickey is addressing, we understand immediately that he declines Mickey's offer, that he is none too thrilled with this Texan's brand of hospitality. Too bad for the new neighbor. We can see what he can't: that Mickey's heart is in the right place, that he just wants to be neighborly. He just wants this newcomer from Minnesota to feel welcome in the Lone Star State. No doubt Mickey Cruthers would want everybody to feel welcome in his West.
So begins In the West, a perceptive and surprisingly affectionate collection of monologues written, performed, and produced by the folks at Big State Productions and their friends. The show is a grab bag of personal sketches, one-person pieces some conversational, some confessional that aim to shed a little light on who these people are who live in the West, that is, who we are and what makes us so different from folks elsewhere that an Eastern photographer named Avedon felt the need to take a bunch of pictures of us and hang them on the walls of a museum.
The Avedon reference is important, because without the photographer and his controversial exhibit "In the American West," Big State's program might never have come into being. It was that exhibit, the monochrome portraits of Westerners heralded everywhere from Texas Monthly to Rolling Stone, that prompted Big State artistic director Jim Fritzler to conceive of a theatrical equivalent: speaking portraits related to the audience through the form of monologue. He developed the idea of a workshop in which actors and writers would work together to create the monologues and set down their own impressions of life in the American West.
The resulting show is as much a response to Avedon's work as it is an expansion of it. Whereas Avedon's portraits all bear the imprint of one man, one artist's interpretation of a region and its people, Big State's represent the impressions of many people. Initially, the workshop involved some 15 persons, the idea being each person would do three things: write a piece for one person, perform a monologue by a second person, and direct the work of a third. Thus each portrait would be the result of three levels of input, while the collection overall would be unified by the layering of each participant in three different ways.
In the end the program didn't work out so evenly some writers are represented by more than one work, some performers have no writing in the show at all but the result is a multivoiced song of the West, a work with a greater sense of expansiveness than the Avedon show could possibly have. In addition and perhaps more importantly In the West represents the work of people living in the region they're talking about. Rather than the outsider looking in, the Big State writers and performers are the insiders, sharing the truths they've come by living with the people whose lives they sketch for us. They know the Westerners and their character intimately.
So what do the Big Staters have to say about those of us who live In the West? Well, not surprisingly, a few of the pieces give the impression there's nothing special about us at all, that is to say, they present to us people who might live anywhere, who do live everywhere. The teenager facing a breakup in "End of the World" (written by Marco Perella and performed by Sidney Brammer) is a universal figure from the moment she asks advice of her very best friend to the instant of her hilariously cathartic scream into her bedroom pillow. Jim Fritzler's male stripper in "Mystery Date" (written by Amparo Garcia-Kassens) mentions The Daily Texan, but otherwise he might be living in Houston or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. His breakdown seems to have little to do with this place, the West. But that isn't a criticism of the show. On the contrary, it opens up the show to encompass those experiences we share with our neighbors to the north and south and east. Too often, Avedon's subjects appear to be a race apart, a people who have no connection to anyone or anything beyond the borders of their region. They seem an inbred family, an incestuous breed. At least some of Big State's Westerners share the same joys and sorrows as the rest of the human race. There are, however, many instances in which we see common threads that bind these people to this one region. We see the people still struggling with their frontier heritage: The female bar owner who carries a .357 Magnum "because in my business you had to" and ends up inadvertently gunning down her husband one night; the woman whose father would not be beaten by the storms of the Gulf Coast, "I watched him rebuild our house four times, and four times it got knocked down again"; the homeowner who still believes the best way to protect his family and property is with a deer rifle.
We see people painfully conscious of the traditions they are heir to, traditions some of which are at odds with the modern world: the husband who rails at his wife for wanting to go back to school, who shouts, "Obey me!" then pleads, "Just do as I say. Everything'll be all right if you just do as I say"; the son bringing a new girlfriend home to his parents, worrying whether or not they'll accept a "city girl"; the homemaker and mother who speaks of her "plain ol' regular plain ol' life," a life she never bothered to question until she encountered a brilliantly lit up UFO on a deserted country road.
We see strong ties of family: a young dad introducing his son to the State Fair's Big Tex for the first time; a woman tottering on the brink of insanity who still tries to tell her mother how much she loves her; a man who looks skyward in an effort to ask advice of his dead father.
But most of all, I think, we see the religiosity of these Westerners. Fully half of the monologues deal explicitly with affairs of the spirit. Some are loose and comical, like the son addressing his dad in heaven, but most reveal some conviction in the power of a Great Spirit, whether in the extremist urgings of the hermit who believes himself one of the chosen or the simple confidence of the woman who believes in entertaining strangers because the Bible instructs us that they may be angels, or even the insistence of the wild child, the boy found living alone in the Big Thicket, that someone or something, some spirit perhaps, left him food when he was hungry. These are people, the Big Staters seem to be saying, in whom faith runs deep. And whether that faith comes from the land or a religious upbringing or some purity of soul, it sustains these people in a way that bread cannot.
Now that's an amazing message in this skeptical modern age, that there are still some honest, goodhearted, and faith-filled people carrying on. And it's doubly amazing that such a message should come to us from the boldest and most innovative of Austin's theatre companies. But then, it's a message not too far removed from the cosmic moral of Our Town, which Big State staged last season. Both shows reaffirmed our ties to a life beyond this one, to something larger and perhaps greater than ourselves, whether you choose to call it God or Buddha or the Great Spirit or simply The Universe. They gave us some ray of hope in a bleak age by pointing out that our belief in or at least understanding of that cosmic connection can be something beautiful and rich to us in this life. It is a message I find moving, and, not surprisingly, I was moved by In the West just as I was moved by Our Town.
To put it bluntly, this is an inspired production, The writing is of a surprisingly high calibre, not what you would expect from any handful of actors, but what you would believe could come from a group of artists who gave their hearts to this kind of project. The words given us by Gene Fowler in "Mickey Cruthers" and "Buddy;" by Sidney Brammer in "Born in the Eye;" by Jo Carol Pierce in "Tattooed Tears;" by Aralyn Hughes in "Dad in a Nutshell;" by Carmen Luna-Labbe in "Joe Terrell, Jr.;" by C.K. McFarland in "I Saw the Light;" and by Marco Perella in "No. 143,999" are so rich in nuggets of character, so full of the language that opens up for us a real person and not just a body, they almost defy praise.
Similarly, the show benefits from an almost unimaginable level of performance energy. These actors invest themselves so heavily into their characters that the performances seem almost seamless. In some instances, it's difficult to tell where the actor ends and the character begins. Lou Perry's Joe Terrell, Jr. is so terrifyingly real in his rage, we recoil from him, fearful that he might direct some of his anger our way. C.K. McFarland's affable madwoman is so convincing in her anxiety over being committed as insane that we almost want to leap to the stage and comfort her. Lorne Loganbill's belief in the 12 Tribes of Israel and his own salvation is undoubtable, as is Marco Perella's belief that a glance heavenward can bring him into contact with his dear departed daddy. And Amparo Garcia-Kassens' giddy Chicana party girl is so perfectly realized, so dead right with her effervescent giggles and remonstrations of "Silly!," that it's hard to believe she's acting. Really all the performances merit special mention; they're simply that good, that remarkably, remarkably good. They illuminate for us in every instance the heart of the person speaking.
And heart, along with faith, is what it's all about. These Westerners believe in each other, along with their God. That's something God expects them to do. And they will at times go out of their way to reach out to others. In the West opens fittingly with Mickey Cruthers welcoming, not just a transplanted Minnesotan, but all of us to this West. It closes in a similar vein with Jo Carol Pierce assuring us and a Mr. Avedon with whom she converses in the final piece that there will always be a place for strangers here. This extended hand, this kindness, this heart, is what makes In the West such an extraordinary piece of theatre. It does not simply show us glimpses of Westerners' lives, it invites us into them, sharing with us the intimate details, the joy and blood and tears.
In the West is the best kind of theatre there is: exciting, involving, and original. And it has drawn for us extraordinary portraits of a people, portraits Mr. Avedon would surely give his best lens for.