Mark Roberts writes plays about abuse, adultery, addiction, illness, incest, and suicide in the American Midwest, or at least that’s the terrain he covered in Parasite Drag, reviewed here a couple years back. Rogue Machine Theatre produces dark, edgy dramas like Small Engine Repair and Blackbird, which swept virtually every major theater award in town this past year. That’s why Roberts’ and Rogue Machine’s maiden collaboration, Where The Great Ones Run, comes as such a surprise. Though alcoholism, domestic violence, homosexuality, and a rather long bit of full-frontal male nudity would doubtless make this Mark Roberts play rather too daring for, say, Actors Co-op, coming from Rogue Machine, Where The Great Ones Run seems downright sunny, more Horton Foote than Sam Shepard, and if you’re anything like this reviewer you’ll love every minute of Roberts’ only slightly acidic valentine to small-town Indiana life.

 Over the course of Where The Great Ones Run’s seventy-five minutes, director Mark L. Taylor (incisive as always) and an ensemble of actors working together like a finely tuned machine bring Roberts’ words to vivid, absorbing life.

Set in a roadside diner, Where The Great Ones Run’s major characters include short order cook Buddy (Mark St. Amant), a recovering alcoholic with a penchant for taking his clothes off and making a ruckus; curvaceous waitress Kylie (Jennifer Pollono), who’s just kicked out her good-for-nothing boyfriend Owen … after having pity sex with him; world-weary waitress Marylou (Holly Fulger), single since her five-year marriage to Buddy’s brother, country music star Sonny Burl, produced their daughter Julie, a young woman he’s barely stayed in contact with since his and Marylou’s divorce; tomboy Julie (Lily Holleman), whose sexual orientation Marylou dubs “lesbian malarkey” and whose outward bravado masks both vulnerability and self-doubt; and last but not least, Sonny (Jeff Kober), back in town for a last chance to connect with his ex-wife and daughter and “make things right.”

 In smaller roles, there’s bad boy cook Tommy (Edward Tournier), unlikely to show up for work today having gotten punched out last night by the married woman he’s been seeing on the sly; police officer Hank (John Posey) a handsome middle-aged lawman with a hankering for an apparently uninterested Marylou; trucker buddies Rodney and Chuck (Robert John Brewer and Andy Hirsch), for whom bickering has become a way of life; and middle-aged couple Darrel and Renee (Howard S. Miller and Hersha Parady), on their way to visit their recently hospitalized adult son and not quite sure what to tell the folks at church back home. Finally, there’s Old Man (Tucker Smallwood), the café’s probably homeless one-man Greek chorus, dispenser of advice and a running commentary of favorite phrases from the local paper.

 Over the course of twenty-four hours (artfully compacted down to seventy-five or so minutes), Where The Great Ones Run gives us Blue Staters a glimpse into the lives of Red State folk that goes far beyond the easy stereotyping we big-city dwellers are wont to do. Playwright Roberts achieves this with finely etched characters, humor, and heart. There’s a running joke about Buddy’s penchant for referring to young women as “girls” and Marylou’s insistence that they should be called women. Marylou’s dry sense of humor is a treat. She describes toast as “like bread. But crunchy,” and refers to her life as “great. Except for the sixty hours a week I have to put in, this place pretty much runs itself.” As for Sonny, this reviewer got a particular kick out of his description of hominy as “kinda like corn, kinda like a bean. It’s the mule of vegetables.”

 Where laughter abounds, there are sure to be tears, at least in real life, and audiences may need Kleenex on more than one occasion, particularly in a play as beautifully performed as this one.

A spot-on Kober makes us believe in Sonny’s stardom, and in his demons. Fulger’s steely Marylou, Pollono’s adorable Kylie, and St. Amant’s grizzly Buddy simply couldn’t be better. Holleman is heartbreakingly real as pseudo-tough girl Julie. Brewer, Hirsch, Miller, Parady, Posey, Tournier, and Uribes make the utmost of their briefer roles, and the splendid Smallwood vanishes into Old Man’s wise and weathered skin, with no intention of shuttin’ up any time soon.

 Superlatives are in order for Where The Great Ones Run’s superb design package. Scenic designer Keith Mitchell has created an Illinois truck stop diner so authentic, you’d swear he’s transported it halfway across the country, a set that’s been dressed with stunning attention to detail by property designer Hazel Kuang (though wasn’t that an L.A. Times I saw?). Jeremy Pivnick lights the diner with imagination and flair, Adam Flemming’s sensational projection design provides a vivid, ever-changing Midwest backdrop, Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design aids greatly in situating us in America’s Bible Belt, and Michèle Young’s costumes are homespun perfection. Kudos go too to Penny Orloff’s choreography, Lee Briante’s musical direction (along with Kober’s singing and strumming), and The Far West’s original music.

Tommy Dunn is assistant director, Brittany Morrison is stage manager, and David Miller is technical director. Where The Great Ones Run is produced by John Perrin Flynn, Matthew Elkins, Tournier, and Betsy Zajko.

Though this is only Rogue Machine’s fifth season, one gets the feeling they’ve been around years longer, so impressive has been their work over the past four years. Their 2011 season will be a tough one to follow, but Where The Great Ones Run gets Season 2012 off and running to an impressive start.

Rogue Machine, 5041 Pico Blvd, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 26, 2012
Photos: John Flynn

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