Michael Mitchell's paired one-acts depict characters with a lot bottled up inside
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 5, 2008
Salvage Vanguard Theater, through Dec. 14
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min
In the two new plays by Michael Mitchell paired under the title Still Fountains, we hear a lot about fountains – what they do and what they mean to a modern Texas family and in the Bible. What we see, however, are fountains that are, as the title suggests, still. The same towering structure that dominates Yvonne Boudreaux's elegantly spare set serves as the two different fountains that appear in "Highway Home" and "Them," but scarcely a trickle issues forth from it in either play. In "Highway Home," that dribble of liquid suggests something holding back the flow of water, keeping the thing from doing what it was created to do. And the same could be said for some of the characters who gather around this structure in both these dramas.
In "Highway Home," two brothers contend with dreams deferred while their recently deceased mother was alive. In "Them," a man of God with a love of men that he's kept in check for years flirts with the prospect of indulging his true nature. All are males in their middle years who have been restraining some desire within themselves, bottling it up out of some sense of duty, holding it in for years, and as with a blocked water line, as time goes by, pressure builds. For Shannon, the brother who stayed in his crumbling childhood home and tended to his mother in her final years, the need to get away has been roiling inside him, and now he sees his chance to be shed of this place once and for all. That puts him at odds with brother Patrick, who is drawn to reclaim the home that he was driven from by a mother who refused to accept him as a gay man. The two circle the fountain – along with their nephew and his new wife, who have their own interest in the property – through one long night in which past actions are raked over and present motivations questioned. With the unnamed minister of "Them," a medical diagnosis has made his desire to truly know another man more acute, and he risks an encounter with a strange man in a park, an encounter that turns as much on matters of the spirit as matters of the flesh.
There's a familiarity to these stories – the family get-together at which old wounds are reopened, the repressed individual who seeks freedom in the arms of a stranger – that makes Still Fountains feel like a walk down a well-worn road. In some, that will no doubt cause the drama to resonate all the more deeply; in others, it may leave them feeling that they've seen this all before. The strength of Mitchell's writing is that he makes even the most conventional setups seem personal: Every action, every line, matters to the character it comes from. Our sense of that is enhanced by the commitment of a strong acting ensemble under the focused direction of Katie Pearl. Pearl choreographs a nuanced dance of the characters, a wary waltz of need and suspicion that sometimes transforms into a duel. That's particularly evident in "Highway Home," where the characters spend much of their time in verbal combat, parrying and thrusting with words. Garry Peters is notable here as the prickly Shannon, a lawyer by training but a duellist by nature, whose eyes betray his constant search for an opening in which to skewer his opponent. Douglas Taylor rarely allows him an easy score as the cool, mostly collected Patrick, but Taylor gives a richer portrayal as the conflicted minister, who seeks to be true to his calling but is drawn to what may be his last chance to be true to himself; his sense of longing and regret is powerful. Not to slight Jude Hickey and Gina Houston, who contribute keen, intelligent work here as well, but these plays belong to those who carry the weight of more years. Mitchell is really telling their stories, the tales of men who have been still for too long and are attempting at last to break free, to move, to flow.