The inmates are sex offenders who have had sexual relations with underage youths. Nye (B. Weller), is an admitted and dedicated pedophile. He specializes in little boys, and his behavior is compulsive. He is frequently tasered and is often the subject of “experiments” meant to control his attitude and impulses. These are done as a matter of course, and the authorities assure everyone that nothing they do is permanent. There’s a whiff of Nazi Germany as outsiders either don’t know what’s going on or don’t care. Or maybe they’re frightened of speaking up. Such an atmosphere is more than hinted at by the one outsider we hear from.
The other character we meet is Tuck (Jeff Kargus), a model prisoner who has only one offense on his record. Tuck’s case is more complicated than it would seem on the surface, however. He had a consensual encounter with a 16-year-old girl, which was his crime, but his profession also calls his character into question in this repressive society which has apparently gone full out Puritan now. He takes art photographs of nudes, some of them children or teenagers of both sexes. The underage girl he had sex with was one of those models. Tuck’s books are banned and even burned. His work is available only in Europe, and of course, we all know what they’re like. (Playwright Lee Blessing may be having a little fun with the place that has been the longtime refuge of our age’s most famous child molester, Roman Polanski.)
Tuck occupies his time building a labyrinth of brick for meditation, a metaphorical journey to Jerusalem based on the one at the Cathedral of Chartres. He navigates it on his knees until he reaches the center where he can think. The atmosphere, while visually soothing, is jarred constantly by gunfire from beyond the fence somewhere, and when people disappear, they never return. Did they escape, or were they hunted and killed by the “good people” who roam the hills. Even Glover (Mark Abels), the prison psychiatrist, pretends not to know what’s happening. No one has been allowed a visitor either, though one inmate was supposed to receive one before he went missing. Today, however, Tuck is visited by his sister Pearl (Rachel Hanks) who is devoting herself to securing his release. They are told they aren’t allowed to touch, and they don’t, but what Pearl doesn’t know that we do is that Tuck has been doing lots of touching with Mills (Elizabeth Graveman), an administrator, who has essentially blackmailed him into photographing her topless, then having sex with her in secret. This story is much more tangled than Tuck’s labyrinth, especially since outside society has become so 1984-ish.
This play is probably the riskiest piece WEPG is done to date, although they’ve been exploring edgier material in the last few seasons than they had through the company’s long history. It sets up a situation that is difficult for the audience to sort out. Nye is an irredeemable pervert and admits it. He hates himself for what he does but he is compelled to do it. Should he be locked up? Sure. Tuck is an artist who made one mistake and the “victim” was willing. According to our social construct, both are guilty of criminal acts. But are they the same? Of course not. Should they be treated as if they were? Again, no. But then where do you draw the line? Rules are rules, and in this society, “right” and “wrong” are very clear. So, we are forced to begin the whole discussion with a conundrum.
But one important consideration is elided here: What about the vast majority of child abusers who aren’t the playground stalkers Glover condemns? The fact is that most children are harmed by people, mostly but not exclusively men, whom they should be able to trust: Fathers and step-fathers, uncles and brothers, clergymen and teachers. Confining only those who are the sources of “stranger danger” or who get caught in compromising positions addresses so little of the problem. It isn’t clear if this is part of Blessing’s satire, but I hope it is.
The cast does a good job with difficult material. Kargus, who is new to me, is a perfect Tuck. He is boyish, a spiritual seeker who channels his urge to make art into his labyrinth. Weller manages to wring comedy and pathos out of his skeevy Nye. Graveman is properly officious, but also writing an essay there’s a sadness about her that is alluded to but never explained. She may represent another kind of “lonesome” from Tuck’s in the hollow world of the prison. The usually excellent Hanks delivers a gut punch, but she hits the hysterics a little too hard. (About that: The script doesn’t lend itself to outbursts of emotion, so what Hanks is doing, while justified by the circumstances seems jarring in the context of Blessing’s style.) Abels is very good. He wears his role like a, well, glove. He makes Glover’s own perverted voyeurism seem almost offhand, and he portrays a constant aspect of good will. It’s like he learned his trade from Dale Carnegie books.
The scenic design and build by Ken Clark is near perfect, enhanced by Nathan Schroeder’s lights. They give the illusion of a kind of art of darkness where good and evil are manipulated and obscured. The costumes carry on the dark earth tones in the set and represent no particular era. The sound design is clever and creepy to Josh Cook’s credit. Robert Ashton’s careful direction allows his characters room to move literally and to move us emotionally. I’m still not sure how I feel about "Lonesome Hollow" overall because, even though it’s timely, I don’t think it’s the strongest script around, but WEPG gives it a stylish showcase.
"Lonesome Hollow" runs through October 6th at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Enright. For more information: westendplayers.org.