Last Man Club, the new play at Axis Theater, brings the audience into the heart of America's Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Written and directed by Randy Sharp, and featuring Axis's trademark superb production design (sound by Steve Fontaine, lighting by David Zeffren, costumes by Karl Ruckdeschel), the play is as much about atmosphere as anything—it's an investigation not just of what it might have felt like to live through that singular time but also of what made people cope with it in the strikingly diverse ways that they did. And from this we get an exploration of what makes America tick: why did some leave the barren ruined farms of the heartland for the promise of a more prosperous life in California while others stayed behind, tenacious but impoverished? And why do those with the least fall prey to the brazen rainmakers who offer easy solutions in the face of enormous evidence that easy solutions don't exist? (Is there a connection to present-day America in here somewhere?)
The play unfolds in and around the very lonely house (shack, really) of Major, a farmer who has steadfastly stayed on his land even though drought and wind and static electricity have turned that land into literal dust. Major lives here with Uncle PoGord, whose mind has been shattered under the weight of the cataclysm; Wishful Hi, a younger sister who has strange visions; and Saromybride, who was "ruined" by a man called Harland sometime ago. Their brother recently abandoned them, taking their car and their money to Hollywood; it's not clear exactly why they didn't go with him.
Suddenly they are visited by a traveler with the suprising moniker Middle Pints, who is not only a welcome new face but may have the answer to Major's prayers. A while back, it seems, he was involved with a German fellow who had invented a machine that could make rain: seeds the clouds with some kind of high-tech bullet. Pints needs an investor to help him make the machine from the now-dead German's plans, and he also needs a scientist to actually build it.
Henry Taper turns up soon after, and as luck would have it, he's a scientist, albeit one that's apparently un- (or at least under-)employed and entirely adrift. He's also, oddly, the soul of Last Man Club. He says:
I think the government could do something to make this all be easier. Somebody do something, I say! And I think they'd reward the people who thought of whatever it is to do. And those people are going to be the American people TELLING the government what's RIGHT. The indomitable American-
Henry is played by Brian Barnhart, an Axis regular who is extraordinary in a role that's as full of nuance as it is riddled with contradiction. Barnhart's physicality is remarkable, and matched by his colleagues on stage, all of whom are accomplished Axis veterans and all of whom deliver performances as good as any I've seen them give in a decade or so. George Demas is Middle Pints, at once almost childlike in his vulnerability yet weirdly menacing at times. Spencer Aste is the addled PoGord, frequently augmenting Fontaine's soundscape of wind, insects, and other noises with an often non-stop stream of under-his-breath mutterings. David Crabb's Major is all bluff and bluster. Lynn Mancinelli's Wishful Hi and Britt Genelin's Saromybride are wistful, damaged women striving to survive in a world where too many of the choices are yielded to the men folk.
This being an Axis Company play, there's lots that's enigmatic here, shrouded in mystery and illusion. It occurred to me that some of the characters on stage might be ghosts (metaphorically, they kind of all are); my companion wondered how much was real and how much was illusory about Major's brother and his departure.
But the spirits, the moods, the notions of Last Man Club and its people are authentic, no matter how far away from New York City in 2012 they may seem to be.