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Sunday, 17 November 2013 20:15

‘Pterodactyls’ Explores the Relative Value of Extinction

Written by Tina Farmer
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‘Pterodactyls’ Explores the Relative Value of Extinction
stlas.org / John Lamb

In today's conflicted politically correct culture, the idea of evolution as necessary to the survival of a species is more fodder for disagreement than measured study. When applied to a family filled with secrets, however, the question gains a certain tragic purpose, fraught with remorse and filled with pain. The St. Louis Actors' Studio digs deep and finds no clear answers in Nicky Silver's bitingly funny, yet poignantly tragic "Pterodactyls."

Set sometime in the early to mid 1980s, when an HIV diagnosis seemed a sure and swift death sentence and the yuppie generation were enjoying their hedonistic heyday, "Pterodactyls" is, in its own twisted way, an homage to the power of evolution.

The entire show takes place in the living room of the Duncan family, an upper middle class clan with a seemingly charmed and easy life. But, much like the dinosaur bones son Todd finds buried in the backyard, a mysterious and oppressive weight envelopes the family, determined to drive them to extinction.

To those around them it is assumed that the Duncan's appear a stable, successful family, and one that is perfectly normal when viewed from the outside looking in. Inside the home, secrets, misplaced affection and uncertain -- or rather forbidden -- sexual tension hang in the air between every sentence and mar every surface. Silver's script pushes this dichotomy through assumption. The audience never sees the view from outside, however; it is only described in various conversations, an interesting conceit that increases the tension as the façade of normalcy crumbles.

The aforementioned Todd, played with glib confidence and world-weary sophistication by Nathan Bush, opens the show with a delightfully inaccurate yet no less charming history of the world to that moment.

Todd left the family home five years earlier and has only returned because he has HIV and nowhere else to go.

His mother Grace Duncan, capably filled with drunken snobbery and tragic fashion choices by Penny Kols, dotes on Todd. She eagerly welcomes him home with open arms, and it quickly becomes clear that her love for her son exceeds the normal bounds of propriety.

Not to be undone by his wife, father Arthur Duncan, who reminisces about baseball and games of catch that only he remembers, wantonly throws his affection, and lustful gazes, on his youngest child, daughter Emma Duncan.

Played with a growing sense of desperation by Betsy Bowman, Emma is a girl so damaged, confused and eager to leave the poisonous air of her home that she has no memory of her past. Seeking honest affection and a quick escape, she has leapt without a moment's hesitation into the arms of the first boy to take any interest in her, the sexually conflicted Tommy McKorckle.

Whit Reichert's Mr. Duncan swings wildly from befuddled patriarch to leering, snatching wolf as Bowman's sympathetically tragic Emma does her best to avoid his pawing. All the while, Emma's fiancée Tommy, played with a sensual abandon by James Slover, finds his interest quickly turning from the sister to the brother. This turn proves to be Emma's undoing, and her response sets in motion a chain of events certain to lead to her family's destruction, much as a single event kick-started the change that pushed the great dinosaurs to extinction.

Solid acting by the entire cast kept my interest and I found numerous revealing small moments, though I wish that Reichert and Kols had developed more levels in their characters. I wanted to have more sympathy towards the parents, but found them to be overbearing and boorish; this was quite possibly a fault of the script rather than the interpretation.

At times, the script feels a bit dated, and the use of direct audience reference becomes tiresome, though the subject matter is deeply complex and interesting. By the end of the show, I found myself more emotionally vested in the family than I expected and was able to let a few of the more obvious plot contrivances slide due to the intriguing subcontext.

Yes, "Pterodactyls" is a messy and, at times, disturbing play. But it is also darkly hilarious and insidiously effective. Though not for younger or more sensitive audiences, director Milton Zoth and the talented cast load up their guns and just keep shooting until there's no one left standing.

"Pterodactyls" runs through November 24, 2013 at the Gaslight Theater, for more information visit www.stlas.org.

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