Craig Wright may be most familiar as the writer/(executive) producer of TV’s Dirty Sexy Money and Six Feet under, but theatergoers know him as a prodigious playwright, the author of such radically different fare as Orange Flower Water, Grace, and Recent Tragic events, all three of which have had superb L.A. productions over the past two years. Orange Flower Water is a harrowing drama of adultery, Grace mixes that theme with evangelical Christianity, and Recent Tragic Events dares to imagine a screwball comedy taking place the day after 9-11.  Now comes the West Coast Premiere of 2007’s Lady, and the trio of outstanding local productions of Wright’s work is now a quartet.

Like Recent Tragic Events, Lady manages to be side-splittingly funny at times, all the while dealing with serious issues, here the war in Iraq and the question of personal responsibility.  Wright doesn’t provide easy answers.  (In fact, Lady provokes more post-performance discussion than any other play I’ve seen recently.) What he does provide is 85 minutes of outstanding writing, and with The Road Theatre Company at the helm, the audience knows it will be seeing a production at the level of the playwright’s work.

Illinoisans Dyson, Kenny, and Graham are three childhood friends, now somewhere in their early 40s, who reunite annually “to be Sultans again.”  This involves a day of bird hunting in the woods, and much nostalgia for days past.

Dyson is a serial philanderer with a political consciousness, Graham a Washington politician and Iraq war proponent (a position which cheater Dyson finds a different kind of immoral), and Kenny seems (on the surface at least) to be interested in nothing more than getting high and spending time with the titular pooch, his beloved pet, who has joined the threesome for their day in the woods.

Dyson today is a time bomb, ready to go off at any minute, and the object of his fury is U.S. Representative Graham.  Elected 12 years ago as “a Democrat running on a Republican platform” with Dyson and Kenny’s help, Graham is now a staunch supporter of George W. Bush and his aim to democratize the world by waging war on terrorists (and anyone who happens to be in their vicinity).  Dyson’s anger is not only political; it is personal as well, for his 18-year-old son has made the (apparently) impulsive decision to enlist today in the Marines, and Dyson blames this determination on a speech which Graham has just made.  

With the play’s first scene (between Dyson and Kenny) providing laughter about every twenty seconds, it comes as rather a shock when Dyson reveals his plan for the day. Either Graham phones Dyson’s son and convinces him not to enlist, or Dyson will shoot him dead.

There is death in Lady, and the play becomes an emotion-charged discussion of responsibility, for that death, and for the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Part of Wright’s brilliance as a playwright is his ability to create “extremist” characters without demonizing them.  Just as Grace’s evangelical couple was treated without condescension, here Wright gives Graham a monolog in which he defends America’s role as Dirty Harry to the world, a speech that seem almost to make sense, at least at the moment.  Perhaps Graham is not the political opportunist that Dyson believes him to be. At the same time, Democrat Dyson’s political high road may be cancelled out by his personal low road; he has cheated on his wife countless times and his son knows about it.  Could this, and not Graham’s influence, be the reason the teenager in embarking on a path which might lead to his death?

Writing this fine deserves a production at the same level, and that is precisely what The Road has provided, proof once again that this is a “must-see” theater company.

Director Scott Alan Smith keeps the pace swift and the suspense high, and balances flawlessly the play’s comedic and dramatic elements.

Shawn Michael Patrick as Dyson and Matt Kirkwood as Kenny both give absolutely sensational performances.  Patrick is dynamite with a burning fuse, and charisma which masks the damage that his repeated infidelity is causing his family. Kirkwood is the “good ol’ boy” who hides from the reality of his wife’s terminal cancer with trips to the video store and a ready supply of weed. Both actors have moments in which real tears bordering on sobs appear out of nowhere, a feat which never fails to astound me, and not for a moment does one catch them “acting.”  Mark Doerr has the somewhat smaller and less emotional role of Graham, but he is no less excellent, making the hateful politician almost upsettingly sympathetic.

Stephen Gifford’s scenic design is a marvel, creating an autumnal forest of golden leaves imprinted on dozens of dog-tag shaped hangings. Derrick McDaniel’s lighting enhances both the fall colors and Lady’s shifting moods.  David B. Marling’s superb sound design makes clear how essential this element can be to a production’s emotional impact, and John Hanlin and Kenny Rudolph have composed original music which proves the same about a play’s “soundtrack.” Mary Jane Miller designed the three men’s just-right costumes. Matthew Gonzalez has effectively staged a realistic fight between two of the play’s characters.

Lady is a production where superlatives are merited all around, with writing,  direction, acting, and design elements all at the highest level. I guarantee that you’ll be talking about Lady long after the house lights come up. 

The Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
     April 26, 2008
                                                       Photos: Matt Kaiser

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