Theater department impresses with heart-wrenching 'Distance'

by A.J. Fox | 11/22/05 6:00am

"Soul-wrenching" isn't a word I like to throw around casually, but there is no adjective better suited to describe the two hours I spent in the Bentley Theatre on Sunday watching the theater department's production of Neil LaBute's "The Distance From Here." I walked into the theatre knowing nothing about the play, prepared for anything from melodrama to sidesplitting comedy. What I got was a raw, unblinking glimpse at humanity so profoundly tragic that I sat stunned in my seat even as the lights went up. LaBute's plays are known for their searing, jagged voice -- in this production, his material is gifted with a cast brave enough to embrace that voice and make it their own.

The play opens on Darrell (Sam Gilroy '09) and Tim (Bryan Lee '07), two teenage ruffians playing hooky at the zoo. We know everything about the pair the moment they open their mouths; they spew forth streams of profanity punctuated by homophobic slurs and the occasional crude sexual suggestion. This is the sort of protagonist that LaBute's plays tend to specialize in: the aggressively masculine youth that travels in packs and loves to stick his middle finger in the face of the world.

Their profane dialogue has an almost rhythmic patter reminiscent of a David Mamet play, but there is a bitter irony to the scene that is entirely LaBute; Darrell and Tim peer through the bars of the primate cage and mock the inhabitants, even as they themselves act barely more civilized than beasts.

After the first scene, we are introduced to a seemingly never-ending parade of delinquency. We meet Darrell's trashy stepsister Shari (Lillian King '07), who lives with her bimbo stepmother Cammie (Anna Cates '06) and her abusive, chauvinistic boyfriend Rich (John Bair '06). Their domestic scenes together are so entrenched in a sense of middle-American mediocrity that they seem almost satirical. We are also introduced to Darrell's girlfriend Jenn (Hannah Chase '06), a crumpled flower of a girl whose sad eyes suggest a past about which we don't want to know.

This sorry cast of characters is viewed through a giant metal fence that divides the stage from the pit: a somewhat clumsy metaphor of psychological imprisonment perhaps but an effective tool in communicating the claustrophobic feeling that pervades their sad lives.

I had noticed a sign on my way into "The Distance From Here" warning me that it contained "adult language and themes." Talk about understatement. Nearly every scene in the play crackles with dialogue so savage that listening to it feels like a slap in the face. It wasn't even the vulgarity of the play that affected me, though there was certainly plenty of that on display; it was the sheer cruelty of the characters, goading each other into fits of hostility and hatred as if to prove some nihilistic point. The brilliant costume design of Laura Sides '07 deliberately deglamorizes these delinquents, giving the whole production the look of an Abercrombie catalogue tossed through a meat grinder.

All this is classic LaBute, of course; his plays are fascinated, almost obsessed, with the nihilism of American masculinity. Here, he employs the plot conventions of a standard teenage comedy but does so with such a vicious style that it plays as a sort of jagged parody. The character of Rich, for example, is the antithesis of the American father figure; his thuggish cruelty echoes Del Sizemore, the abusive car salesman from LaBute's "Nurse Betty." As Rich, Bair takes command of every scene he's in. In a play rife with superb acting, his deliberately unironic performance stands out as the best.

Playing against Bair's deadpan machismo is the excellent Gilroy, who brings a spark of desperate energy to the part of Darrell. His sad, confused journey through the shambles of his life provides a much-needed anchor for a play that essentially lacks much of a plot of which to speak. In a great climactic scene, Darrell commits an act of terrible violence, which comes off as all the more tragic because it started as a misplaced gesture of tenderness. Stomach-turning though it may be, the climactic scene is the best in the play because it is earned from the honesty of the acting and the careful restraint of the direction.

Alas, the play missteps at the end with an overlong denouement that tests the patience of the audience. A last-minute revelation about Sam's stepsister Sheri is supposed to shock us, but comes off as anticlimactic after the terrifying scene that precedes it. And yet, the play instantly recovers its footing in a final moment of quiet beauty that grows like a flower out of the broken glass of the play. As the lights came up and a shaken audience stumbled dazedly to the door, I found myself transfixed by that final scene, so tender and yet so terribly sad.

Those who missed the first two shows on Nov. 20 and Nov. 21 have one last chance to catch "The Distance From Here" tonight at 8 p.m.

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