Cyndi Williams pens a gothic ghost story, and what a demented, dramatic tale it is
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Oct. 31, 2008
Austin Playhouse Larry L. King Theatre, through Nov. 8
Running time: 2 hr
Something's rotten on the estate of Rutherford House, and it's unclear which decaying bones are causing that ominous odor. Maybe it's the dead dog's bones, repeatedly unearthed by loving owner Dewitt, or the pet birds' bones. More than likely, that stench is coming from some human bones that are buried in the shallow earth. Which Rutherford's bones are preventing Dewitt from sleeping inside or spending a minute sober? Well, that's one of several questions for which the answer has to be Dug Up.
Austin Playhouse presents the premiere of this gothic ghost story by local playwright/actress/theatre maven Cyndi Williams, and what a demented, dramatic tale it is. Dug Up picks up the threads of three off-kilter characters tied to the Rutherford estate and takes its time weaving their macabre stories together. First, we meet Lissa, a chalk-dust-pale girl standing in a bucket who spouts nonsense stories and cusses at an unseen person on a beach. Then Dewitt, covered in dirt, rises from the soggy patch of land where he's been sleeping (being in his childhood home is beyond him at this point) and yells at his unseen aunt, who resides in the main lodging of their estate; when he's not talking to her, he's talking to the remains of his beloved but deceased dog, Flossy.
From the mysterious shards of these one-sided conversations emerges the sense that something dark transpired here, but it's when the characters finally begin to interact that Dug Up sparks to life. Marci arrives to rent a cottage with her noticeably absent husband, and Dewitt is taken by the spitfire, shit-talkin' Southern dame. Sparks between Dewitt and both battling broads ensue.
Williams' threesome is all wild children, creepy and captivating and bold, each channeling a gamut of emotions. You can't tell if the gals' demented smiles mean they want to fuck you, kill you, or haunt you till the day you die. Jude Hickey has a knack for portraying innocence acutely, and he and Jessie Tilton (Lissa) do an amazing job creating siblings who have known abuse but aren't afraid to laugh at life's shit storm. Combine that with Liz Fisher's femme fatale, and this is one sensationally acted show. Honest.
I expected the second half to continue in its creepy but askew way, as more character piece than fully realized story. But I was surprised and delighted to see Williams' script tighten its screws as the play goes on: The crazy characters show more human dimensions, the web binding them grows stronger, and, most strongly, they're forced to change. That's powerful mojo right there. I don't want to give away too much – that's what makes a good ghost story, yeah? – but I was reminded of Neil Gaiman's comment about his Sandman character: The man has the option to change or die and makes a choice.
As a horrific storm seizes the Rutherford estate, Dewitt must make this same choice. But he's so entrenched there, has so many memories laid in the ground, that it's a near impossible task to uproot himself. "It's just stuff," Marci yells at him. "There's stuff everywhere." But we give all kinds of "stuff" value: presents, lucky charms, favorites. How do we leave those things; how do we leave memories; how do we go beyond what we've known for so long? I'm not sure I have the answer, but I have heard a legend of this haunted space down on South Congress, where they say they put on this spooky play called Dug Up ...