Something went dreadfully wrong in the life of New Hampshire high school senior Warren Conroy a year ago, or so we surmise from our first glimpse of him, behind bars, in Daisy Foote’s riveting family drama Bhutan, now getting a superb West Coast Premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre under the inspired direction of Elina de Santos.

Scenes taking place in the fall of 2006 and in the previous year alternate as we get to know each member of Warren’s tightly knit blue collar family. Dad Charlie’s been dead for years, the victim of a freak bolt of lightning. Mom Mary works as a supermarket clerk, having lost her job at a Tremont, N.H. bank following the events that sent Warren to jail. Mary’s sister Sara has not only gotten fired from her job with a local vet but her ex-boyfriend has recently entered into a marriage with the woman he impregnated after Sara turned down his marriage proposal. Warren’s younger sister Frances dreams of faraway places like the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, less than twice the area of our sixth smallest state, but a universe away for a brainiac trapped in a family who view higher education with undisguised disdain.

Bhutan’s playwright is the daughter of Pulitzer, Oscar, and Emmy winner Horton Foote, and like her esteemed father, she takes us to a small town America which we big city theatergoers have likely had little need or desire to visit, unless of course we ourselves are small town escapees. Horton père, in plays and screenplays like A Trip To Bountiful and Tender Mercies, painted pictures of folksy American life, setting many of his stories in his native Texas. Horton fille‘s characters have far more acid in them than sweet tea, but are no less human, compelling, or painfully real.

Over the course of Bhutan’s engrossing ninety minutes, we get to know the Conroys, present and not-so-distant past. We meet a mother who uses emotional blackmail to keep her children by her side, particularly when left with only Frances under the family roof; a sister stuck in the futile hope that her former sweetheart will regret his betrayal of their love and abandon wife and child to return to her; a son whose hopes and dreams, however small, now seem unimaginable as he falls ever deeper into the darkness of prison life; and a daughter who finds she has more in common with their 78-year-old neighbor, a retired Columbia University professor, than she does with a family for whom a college education seems nothing but a waste of time and money.

Bhutan demonstrates playwright Foote’s mastery of characterization and structure. Not only are the Conroys sketched with an expert pen, Foote reveals their secrets one by one, saving the last one for the play’s final minute or two in an emotional wallop of a payoff.

De Santos, who discovered Bhutan in its 2006 World Premiere engagement at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, has been waiting for five years for the chance to direct it locally, and this West Coast Premiere reveals just how thoroughly she has done her homework. Not only does each and every performance crackle with energy and passion, de Santos and Rogue Machine have assembled a design team that allows the audience to be flies on the Conroy kitchen walls, only feet away from this highly dysfunctional but never boring family.

All four cast members do award-worthy work. As Conroy matriarch Mary, Ann Colby Stocking is a raging inferno of rage, bitterness, and possessive maternal love. Tracie Lockwood’s Sara is a woman whose inability to let go of a love gone sour has turned her into an angry, maudlin drunk. Tara Windley takes family misfit Frances and lets her intelligence sparkle even as her family responsibilities threaten to destroy her dreams. Finally, Scenie winner Marco Naggar transforms Warren from a small town teenager content with his life, his girlfriend, and his job as a plumber’s apprentice to a young man who feels his soul hardening day by day behind bars.

Scenic designer Mark Guirguis has created a blue collar kitchen that looks lived in over countless decades, its appliances, furniture, and wall paper unchanged since as far back as the 1920s. Leigh Allen’s lighting design is a marvel of skill and artistry, her effects alone signaling whether we’re in the Conroy home, a prison visitors’ area, or a combination of both. Sound designer extraordinaire Christopher Moscatiello punctuates Bhutan will malfunctioning furnace clanks and the slamming shut of prison doors, his background music occasionally suggesting places as far away as say Bhutan. Lynda Pyka’s costumes are just right for rural New Hampshire. Dialect coach Susan Wilder gets all four cast members talking as if they were Tremont born and bred. Matt McKenzie has choreographed one terrific catfight.

Bhutan is produced for Rogue Machine by John Perrin Flynn, Matthew Elkins, and Diane Alayne Baker. Lauren Drzata is graphic designer, David Mauer technical director, Amanda Mauer production manager, William Torres assistant director, and Victoria Watson production stage manager.

Rogue Machine’s smaller space at Theatre/Theater was most recently used for the much lauded Blackbird. Bhutan is the perfect follow-up production and one which proves equally powerful. There’s not a weak note in it from its startling opening scene to its powerful, heart-wrenching climax.

Rogue Machine, in Theatre Theater, 5041 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 31, 2011
Photos: John Flynn

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