Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play opens with Ben and Amanda on their porch, with the sound of chirping crickets letting us know they're in a small town, having moved here from Minneapolis. Ben loves it. They can afford their own home here and he can walk to the town tavern and drink among folks who all know and care about each other. Amanda does not share Ben's enthusiasm. She misses the city and has a long commute for her job as a nurse in the county seat 40 miles away. But she loves Ben, and loves that he is happy here.
In the next scene, Ben is on trial for murder. Ben confesses to the crime, claiming he killed Joe in self-defense. Knowing this early on, the play is not a whodunit, but a why-dunit. Through Ben's testimony, we see his friendship with Joe, an old-timer who grew up in this town somewhere in outstate Minnesota and never lived anywhere else. He and his wife live in the house his father built, on property that has long been in their family. He likes his town the way it's always been and doesn't like change. Ben's friendship with Joe is forged at that local bar and as co-workers in the factory that employs most of their town. Their rapport is built on complaining about factory cutbacks, their mutual love of hunting, and their zeal for small town life.
Then Liam shows up. Liam's hair and attire identify him as something other than a rugged all-American male. Joe is openly rude to Liam, leaving no question that he feels that the sooner Liam gets out of his town, the better. Liam is a community organizer, assigned to bring out the votespecifically Democratic votesin rural communities. This makes him no friend. Liam is not in fact a gay man (as Joe assumes) but a transgender male. What's more, Liam and Ben knew each other in Minneapolis where they were both in a support group for people in early stages of transgender transition.
Thus, we realize that Ben is also transgender malesomething that neither Joe nor anyone else in their small town knows, excepting Amanda. And Ben is determined to keep it that way. It also helps to know that Joe carries a hand gun with himalways hasand he keeps his hunting rifle, that once was his father's, on the porch, leaning beside the front door. By now we have a pretty good notion, if not how, at least why things go wrong.
While it is true that Joe is shot to death and that the casual availability of firearms is what enables that death to occur, the argument over access to guns is almost shoe-horned into the play. In one scene, Liam argues the issue with Ben, with Liam taking an "any gun is a bad gun" point of view. This does not address the nuance of our current policy debates. Neither Joe nor Ben would be denied legal ownership of their respective firearms even if the most stringent of proposed policies were enacted.
The issue of community is more clearly and consistently presented. Ben loves the simplicity of small-town life, having fled the city when things went wrong (in ways that are never fleshed out, a weakness in the play if we are to truly understand Ben). Yet to achieve that simplicity, he allows his life partner Amanda to compromise her happiness and completely submerges the core of his own identity. For all his appreciation for the way small-town folks care about one another, he fears that if they knew the truth they would feel very differently. Further, he underestimates what it takes to be viewed a part of that community. Ben and Amanda have been there five or six years, a far cry from those like Joe who have been there generations.
Liam, on the other hand, tries to remind Ben of the community they had in the support group, and the strength that Ben seemed to draw from that community. Ben never denies the value that afforded him, but for someagain, unidentifiedreason, it all fell apart for him. His answer seems to be a retreat to the other extreme, without a game plan other than to remain totally hidden.
In a Stand of Dying Trees rakes in other issuesunion organizing, capitalism, corporate health care, and sexism among themintertwined in ways that work well from a narrative perspective, but end up being a lot for the play to sustain. The play succeeds in showing the intersectionality of these issues and of individuals affected by them, but with so much on the plate, we get only a few bites of each.
Director Emily England manages the transitions between scenes well, working with the stage configuration at the Off Leash Art Box, so that the bar in which most of the action occurs, the porch outside Ben and Amanda's home, and a courtroom witness chair that spins around to become a deer stand in the woods, stretch out along the narrow playing area. Set designer Maggie Mae Sulentic has a rare combination of talents, as she is also the fight choreographer, staging a heated scene that threatens to erupt into full scale violence with keen authenticity.
The play's four actors all earn high marks. Jeff Miller plays Ben, the character whose values are most challenged and whose efforts to conceal his truth end up backfiring tragically. Miller is excellent in the role, smugly complacent drinking with the good ol' boys, like Joe, then struggling to rein in encroaching anxiety as Liam's presence and Amanda's rising need for his support threaten his "safe" existence. Mike Novak is terrific as Joe, a wide-grinning good neighbor who will give you the shirt off his back, unless you offend his sensibilities by being anything other than what he has always known. And if you do, he knows how to get mean. I know guys like Joe, and Novak nails the character. Novak also provides the authoritative voice of the off-stage court interrogator.
Carey Morton makes a solid impression as Liam. Though the character, as written, is terribly annoyingreally, with a graduate degree as a community organizer, he ought to have a better idea how to go about things without alienating the whole townMorton makes him believable, and shows us the strength he exudesin contrast to Benby living with his truth. He is also very amusing as a light-weight drinker who has clearly moved out of his league. Maretta Zilic is excellent in a character very different from the white supremacist she played so convincingly in last summer's What Would Crazy Horse Do. Amanda's love for Ben, and generosity in supporting him are completely authentic, as is her dedication to the patients she cares for at the hospital forty miles away, her rising anger about her working conditions, and her sense of desolation when she feels emotionally abandoned by Ben. Zilic never betrays a false move.
The play leaves us to debate and consider for ourselves what should happen next. The case made by the court against Ben is completely one sided, but we know what we saw. We can be very sympathetic to Ben, yet a man lies dead. Given time to consider it, the question of guilt and innocence becomes more complex. Simple truth is an illusion.
In spite of some shortcomingsan overstuffed agenda, the one-sided court case against Ben, the absence of a backstory as to what drove Ben to seek refuge from the city, and some simplistic ideas of the work of community organizersthere is much worth seeking out in In a Stand of Dying Trees. It addresses difficult issues that deserve our attention, with four strong performances bringing the characters to life.
Uprising Theatre Company's In a Stand of Dying Trees, runs through November 23, 2019, at Off Leash Art Box, 4200 E. 54th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Sliding scale: $20.00, general admission; pay what you can, $5.00 - $15.00; support Uprising Theatre, $25.00 - $50.00. For tickets and information, visit www.uprisingtheatreco.com.
Playwright: Shannon TL Kearns; Director: Emily England; Set Design and Fight Choreography: Maggie Mae Sulentic; Lighting Design: Jake Otto; Stage Manager: Xander Cavanagh; Assistant Stage Manager: Gabriel Peñaloza-Hernandez.
Cast: Jeff Miller (Ben), Carey Morton (Liam), Mike Novak (Joe), Maretta Zilic (Amanda).