nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
August 15, 2004
“How do you deal with all your pain, Luther? How do you deal with all the horrible stuff?” So inquires the beautiful and fragile Lila, one of the more appealing “crippled adults” featured in the Matchbook Theatre Company’s latest contribution to FringeNYC. Although poor Lila’s solution to her plangent query usually involves little more than a six-pack, Matthew Holtzclaw’s layered, complicated drama refuses to let the audience off the hook so easily.
Cane’s Bayou opens with the increasingly untenable situation of Luther Adams, an admittedly lonesome “nice guy” in his mid-twenties whose lifelong responsibility of caring for his retarded brother, Cane, is approaching a critical juncture. Encouraged by his kindly boss to “meet a pretty girl,” Luther‘s entanglement with the alluringly vulnerable Lila, however, precipitates concerns far more tortuous than a basic need to connect. As Lila, along with her abusive, redneck brother and his brain-dead crony, descends on the brothers’ tidy trailer park home, the previously rued status quo abruptly swirls into entropy. Familiar domestic patterns skew into unsettling new configurations, and dormant family secrets emerge almost literally from the mucky Florida marshland Cane persists in wading through.
This thoughtful, ambitious work shows considerable depth, but would benefit from some judicious streamlining. As sympathetic as we find Luther’s plight, once he and the self-destructive Lila discover that love and/or sex cannot salve long-festering wounds, the play tends to lose focus. Issues like racism, fraternal obligation, personal free will, and the effects of family history are all tackled with varying degrees of success, but several theoretical speeches (and one achingly lovely, but ultimately distracting, dance interlude) impede the momentum, feeling almost arbitrarily tucked into scenes that have stalled. The program credits the entire seven-member cast for direction—an enviable collaboration manifested by their remarkable ensemble performance, but one that may have precluded a more sharply defined production.
Still, the characters’ insistence on asking the tough questions keeps us pulling for them. And their nuanced, seriocomic struggle provides a splendid showcase for this dexterous cast, particularly Michael McElroy, whose meticulous embodiment of Cane’s vocal and physical tics never eclipses the grounded emotional authenticity granted him by the playwright. If, by play’s end, we’re unsure of how Luther—or any or us, really—will resolve all of life’s “horrible stuff,” we remain inspired by his anguished foray into murky existential swamps. Holtzclaw’s accomplished, poignant depiction of this quest emboldens us to accompany him.