Stephen Metcalfe’s gripping new drama The Tragedy Of The Commons takes as its title a term coined in the early 1960s by sociobiologist Garrett Hardin, though it’s not until late in the play that its protagonist explains Hardin’s concept:

“The term holds that a shared resource is inevitably ruined by uncontrolled use. Air pollution. Contaminated ecosystems. Abuse and destruction of rainforests and our ocean’s fisheries. Human-induced climate change due largely to the burning of fossil fuels for energy use. End of land. End of air. End of water. End of sunset. Of meadow. Mountain. Horizon. End of beauty. End of us.”

What concerns 60something Dakin Adams (Brian Kerwin) personally is a considerably smaller tragedy than the “end of us,” but one which could well represent the first step towards the destruction of the beachside community Dakin and his wife Macy (Leslie Hicks) have called home for decades. On a more personal note, it might end up the straw that breaks Dakin’s emotional back.

At first glance, the Adamses would seem to have, if not a perfect marriage, then at least a solid one. Dakin’s early retirement from his high school teaching job gives him time to blog on politically progressive themes, and he seems particularly delighted with his computer’s newly installed voice recognition software that allows him to write at three times the speed it would take him to type, and “with 99% accuracy.” Macy, meanwhile, spends her days painting—her current canvas-in-progress is a view of the ocean from their patio—and taking the couple’s dogs for leash-free walks in the local park, blithely ignoring Dakin’s complaints that each time the police issue a citation, it costs them $250 dollars.

The first hint that all is not right comes when adult son Spencer (Lane Compton) makes a sudden appearance in Dakin’s living room, one which playwright Metcalfe and Ruskin Group Theatre Co. director Dave Florek make clear is happening inside Dakin’s head. We surmise that Spencer is dead and are soon proven right in our guess. As for the manner of his death, though we are given several hints, when the truth is revealed, it hits us like a punch in the gut.

Later in the day, neighbor Carl Brewer (Edward Edwards) arrives with news that he and his cancer-battling wife are selling their house and moving to Seattle, the better to be closer to their children. The loss of a twenty-year friendship seems to concern Dakin less than the sudden realization that all that has stood between his patio and an ocean view is the height of the Brewers’ one-story home. With the house’s asking price scarcely more than the $1,000,000 the property is worth, it takes Dakin only seconds to put two and two together and come up with an answer that throws him into a panic. The new owners are likely to tear down the home and build up, thereby destroying the view which has come to symbolize everything that still means anything to him in his life.

Lawyer daughter Ellen (Austin Highsmith) offers her professional help, and thus begin a series of negotiations with Carl that threaten not only Dakin’s friendship with his very Republican neighbor but also his marriage, his bank account, and his emotional and mental stability—all of which become further jeopardized when Dakin meets his new neighbor Dan Gerard (Jeffery Stubblefield), a gay man whose business is buying property, tearing down what’s there, building something bigger and better (emphasis on the bigger), pocketing a neat profit, and heading for the hills.

Dakin’s crisis may seem minuscule in the overall scheme of things, but it serves as both a metaphor for our world’s greater tragedies and as the basis of a family drama reminiscent of the best of Arthur Miller. Like Death Of A Salesman and All My Sons, The Tragedy Of The Commons focuses on a longtime marriage in crisis, family relationships (particularly between parents and adult children), the loss of a son, and the effects that individual decisions can have on society as a whole.

That the Ruskin has in the past year or so produced two Scenie-winning Arthur Miller revivals makes The Tragedy Of The Commons an especially apt choice for the Santa Monica theater gem, particularly since Edwards directed Highsmith in All My Sons and Compton recently starred as Miller’s fictional stand-in in A Memory Of Two Mondays.

Florek’s direction of this Los Angeles Premiere is as pitch perfect as his cast’s performances, aided by an uncredited sound design and musical underscoring that enhances their work considerably.

Kerwin, a film-TV-stage actor with a list of credits a mile long, brings his decades of experience to a performance whose power is heightened by our proximity to the actor in the intimate Ruskin Theatre space. Kerwin gives us, initially at least, an affable husband and father with perhaps too much free time on his hands, then reveals one by one the cracks beneath the surface. As Dakin reaches a mental and emotional crisis of near Shakespearean proportions, Kerwin’s performance attains true greatness.

Hicks, whose many stage credits include the Broadway production of Merlin opposite Doug Henning, excels too in the smaller but no less beautifully performed role of Dakin’s increasingly concerned and frustrated wife. Kerwin and Hicks are entirely believable as longtime spouses, their performances meshing to perfection as the emotional and dramatic stakes get higher and higher.

The dynamic Stubblefield is quite terrific as Dan, resisting any temptation to villainize Dakin’s nemesis, giving us instead a likeable chap whose intentions may not be noble but aren’t nearly as nefarious as Dakin would like to believe, and when we learn that the Adamses’ family tragedy has touched Dan as well, it becomes even harder to see him, or Stubblefield, as the heavy.

Highsmith, so memorable as Ann Deever in All My Sons, does wonderful, three-dimensional work here too as a daughter who has always taken second place to her older brother in her father’s heart. Compton, the heart and soul of A Memory Of Two Mondays, has the tough assignment of playing not a real person, but the idealized memory of a real person, one he meets with another fine performance on the Ruskin stage. Edwards, whose inspired helming of All My Sons won him a Best Director Scenie, has just the right “good guy” persona to contrast with Carl’s understandable but still rather insufferable selfishness when money and friendship are concerned.

Cliff Wagner divides the Ruskin stage into a comfortable upper middle class living room and patio, an attractive set design made even richer by set dressers Nicole Milar and Mike Reilly. (As always, Ruskin audiences get to be flies on the third and four wall of the set.) Brandon Baruch has created yet another impeccable lighting design. Lola Kelley’s costumes are fine choices for all five characters. Nicole Millar is stage manager. The Tragedy Of The Commons is produced by Mikey Myers and Mike Reilly.

The Ruskin Group Theatre Co. has another winner in The Tragedy Of The Commons. It helps of course that the production is anchored by one of the finest performances you’re likely to see all year, but Kerwin’s towering work is but one of many reasons not to miss this powerful piece of L.A. theater at its best.

Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
October 8, 2011
Photos: Agnes Magyari

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