George Gibbs and Emily Webb may have come of age over a hundred years ago in the New England equivalent of American Falls … but they had their lives a hell of a lot easier than the citizens of playwright Miki Johnson’s 21st-century Our Town, now getting an impressive Los Angeles Premiere by The Echo Theater Company.

American Falls_4A Take Lisa (Deborah Puette), who’s just offed herself with a mouthful of Xanax rather than face another day with abusive hubby Samuel (Karl Herlinger), forget that her demise leaves their elementary-school-aged son Isaac (Tomek Adler) with a violent nutcase of a dad.

American Falls_2B Then again, was it really Samuel’s seed that fertilized Lisa’s egg and not that of Eric (Eric Hunicutt), out drinking tonight with best buds Matt and Maddie (Ian Merrigan and Jessica Goldapple) and swapping stories of disturbing dreams and assorted childhood traumas?

On the other hand, who’d even want to get fertilized by Bad Seed Sam, one of the eleven children “pushed out” by the now 70something Samantha (Barbara Tarbuck), most of whose youth was spent “fornicating [with a long list of lovers] under the influence of Budweiser beer.”

No, indeed, Miki Johnson’s American Falls Idahoans are just about the farthest thing imaginable from the sweet and wholesome Our Town bunch created by Thornton Wilder back in the 1930s.

Not that they wouldn’t make for a great black-and-white slice-of-life documentary, or an all-star Oscar darling of a movie, or a more standard-issue stage drama than the one Johnson debuted three years ago in Houston.

American Falls_6A The Ohio-born playwright takes a more daring (and challenging) approach in American Falls, constructing her one-acter primarily as a series of alternating monologs anchored by Native American shoe salesman Billy Mound Of Clouds (Leandro Cano), who begins his first soliloquy with the words “Let me tell you a story,” then leaves it up to us to piece that story together.

If ever there were a play that required an audience’s close attention (particularly to character names), American Falls is that play, and those who allow their attention to wander early on will likely soon find themselves wondering just who is who and who did what to whom.

Still, for anyone with the requisite focus, American Falls’ rewards are many, all the way up to as thoroughly satisfying an ending as any playwright or audience could hope for.

The acting assignments Johnson gives her cast of characters are tough ones to say the least. Only the trio of drinking buddies actually get to converse, and Herlinger in particular has a doozy of an assignment—recounting Samuel’s litany of marital woes in the foulest language possible to the small child seated only inches away all the while shaving every hair from his face, arms, and legs. (Can you spell C-R-E-E-P-Y?)

Fortunately, under Chris Fields’ perceptive direction, a stellar cast of eight more than rise to Johnson’s challenges, aided and abetted by a dream production design team.

Cano, reprising the role he played several months ago for Pittsburgh’s Barebones Productions, is the heart and soul of American Falls in a performance rich in layers of love and humor and warmth.

American Falls_3 As Samuel, Herlinger follows the dazzling mad scene that highlighted Echo’s spring 2015 production of Fugue with a more subtle but no less disturbing variety of madness that holds us (along with Samuel’s captive audience of one) mesmerized.

American Falls_5 Tarbuck’s defiantly hard-drinking, hard-living Samantha and Puette’s otherworldly radiant Lisa could hardly be more different, but both actresses are superb.

Hunicutt, Goldapple, and Merrigan are given less to do, but what they do they do quite marvelously, and since their scenes are the only ones involving characters who actually get to interact, the trio provide a welcome relief from what otherwise might add up to too much soliloquizing.

American Falls_1 Last but not least is talented UC Berkeley (Preschool) grad Adler, who not only aces a child actor’s arguably toughest assignment (to remain still and focused for almost all of American Falls’ seventy-five minute running time) but provides the evening’s cathartic moment in a scene that can only be described as transcendent.

(Andrea Grano, Garrett Hanson, Michael McColl, Beth Triffon are Lisa, Matt, Samuel, and Maddie alternates.)

American Falls could not look more splendid than it does, scenic designer Nina Caussa’s abstract set backed by a stage-wide Idaho Plains panorama sublimely lit by Jesse Baldridge, and Michael Mullen’s Midwest-drab costumes provide each character with a pitch-perfect look. Add to the above Jeff Gardner’s masterful sound design with its subtly distorted background tunes and you’ve got as Grade-A a production design as any theater company could possibly hope for.

American Falls is produced by Reena Dutt and Fields. Emyli Gudmundson is stage manager.

Though I’m guessing that no one who sees American Falls will be eager to pack up and move there any time soon, I’d bet equal money that just about everyone who sees this daring, challenging play and production will be glad they paid the town a visit.

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Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
September 11, 2015
Photos: Darrett Sanders

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