The Austin Chronicle

Southwest Theatre Productions' Exit 27

At its heart, Aleks Merilo's play about teenage boys exiled from their cultlike church is about mind control

Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, January 29, 2016, Arts

The desert is a vast, lonely place. Big enough to capture any number of secrets and hide them well. Some secrets, however, fight to be discovered, to return to their natural truth. Aleks Merilo's Exit 27 tells the story of just such secrets in human form.

In the desert of southern Utah, in a cobbled-together clubhouse, four teenage boys seek refuge after being ostracized by their church – well, actually less church than cult: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is about as Mormon as the Westboro Baptist Church is Baptist. Despite being shunned for the tiniest of injustices, these so-called "Lost Boys" still want to return to the FLDS. Then into their midst comes the one female character (played superbly by high school junior Lee Eden), who is known simply as "the Outsider." There's something fitting about the playwright's choice here; it echoes the Lost Boys reference to their banishment-worthy deeds as "Original Sin." The isolation, pecking order among the boys, and use of violence to settle disputes gives Merilo's script a Lord of the Flies quality, but at its heart, Exit 27 is a story of mind control, with Merilo shedding light on just how mindfucked these kids are and hoping we realize this fiction is not far from fact.

In this staging for Southwest Theatre Productions, director Kat Sparks clearly knows the story she wants to tell, and it's moving to see such passion poured into a production. Actors Thomas Burke, Nathaneal Dunaway, Sam Stinson, and Sam Domino commit to their roles with charisma and heart, with Stinson's somewhat-off Shyler and Domino's compelling Brodie as standouts. However, the naive Lost Boys are also rather racist and sexist, to the point that at times it becomes hard to sympathize with them. And that problem is compounded by the way that Sparks too often allows her talented actors to play the emotion rather than the action, telegraphing rather than trusting Merilo's rich and lyrical text. The play is often frantic and kinetic, and young masculine fervor is expected, given the characters' wild and unguided nature, but a lot of our connection with these young men is lost due to unnecessary yelling and quivering voices. The production is at its most powerful when the action stops and each teen stands alone in a spotlight, reading aloud a letter home.

Wesley Riddles' set captures the chaotic aesthetic of a shack in the middle of nowhere, more elevated campsite than safe home, and it's complemented by Amy Lewis' stark and atmospheric lighting. But unfortunate blocking choices often leave speaking characters in shadow – sometimes because of their position onstage, sometimes because their energy and focus is funneled downward, obscuring their faces. Coupled with the use of a ground mic, this makes it difficult to know which character is speaking. And while the mic picking up every step in dirt or gravel adds to the environmental ambience, it also occasionally covers dialogue with a loud "crunch" in addition to the ever-present white noise.

On the whole, though, Exit 27 is a story worth telling and seeing, one likely to leave audiences thoughtful and challenged.

Exit 27

Boyd Vance Theatre, 1165 Angelina
Through Jan. 31
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

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