San Francisco’s Virago Theatre Company has come south to offer L.A. its production of William Bivins’ edgy psychological thriller Ransom, Texas, and there is much to recommend in it, particularly Dixon Phillips’ intensely raw lead performance, though Phillips’ costar’s vaguely non-native accent makes it hard to buy the pair as a West Texas father and son.
The supremely cluttered factory office that scenic designer Nina Ball and properties designer Julie Gillespie have concocted cue us in from the get-go that Ransom, Texas will feature a Grade A production design, a feeling borne out by director Jon Tracy’s dramatic lighting, Hannah Birch Carl’s striking sound composition and design, and Brooke Jennings’ just-right costumes.
As for Bivins’ script, its sins-of-the-fathers plot is the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner, with enough twists and turns to keep an audience on the edge of their seats throughout.
The setup is a straightforward one, with 30ish Bruce (Damien Seperi) awaiting the signature of his prematurely grizzled dad Vern (Phillips) on a contract that will turn control of the family factory over to new owners who plan to switch from the manufacture of drill bits to candle-making.
Despite the buyers’ assurance that factory workers can rest assured their jobs are not in jeopardy, Vern seems skeptical, a skepticism made abundantly clear when, just after signing over the factory, he quickly paper-shreds the contract.
Thus begins a father-son cat-and-mouse game during which whisky shots will be guzzled, long-buried secrets will be revealed, and blows will be exchanged—and not merely those of a physical nature, all of this leading up one humdinger of a climax.
Phillips does such brutally honest work under Tracy’s electric direction that I could only wish a more convincing actor had been cast as Vern’s son. Seperi gives Bruce his all, and would doubtless be terrific in a role that didn’t require us to believe that he had grown up with English as his first language. The handsome young actor’s foreign accent is minimal, but every even slightly non-native vowel took me out of a play that deserves absolute authenticity.
Ransom, Texas is produced by Laura Lundy-Payne. Dennis Chowenhill is dramaturg. Dave Maier gets high marks for his fight choregraphy.
Like San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions’ Language Rooms, which played the Los Angeles Theatre Center two years back, Ransom, Texas’s arrival at Hollywood’s Theatre Asylum Lab is the kind of NoCal/SoCal exchange that ought to take place far more often.
While not the pitch-perfect production it could have been, the visit Ransom, Texas is paying us is a welcome one. Let’s hope for many more.
Theatre Asylum Lab, 1078 Lillian Way, Hollywood.
January 11, 2015
Photos: Luis A. Solorzano