“In American Falls, a doctor can live next to a shoe salesman, and a shoe salesman can be an Indian.” This line from American Falls, which opened this weekend in its west coast premiere at the Atwater Village Theatre, helps set the scene of the small Idaho town where the story takes place. As far as a portrait of small town, American life, it is a rather bleak one that seemed to leave even the urban LA audience unsettled.
The play, which is written by Miki Johnson, directed by Chris Fields, and presented by the Echo Theater Company, is essentially a series of vignettes and monologues, many of which are spoken directly to the audience. For the most part, the eight person cast remains onstage throughout the 85-minute performance, with the lights indicating whose turn it is to be the focus of the story next. While the various characters at first seem to be telling stories with only the setting in common, the relationships between them are slowly revealed throughout, interconnecting their tales into one larger, rather tragic story.
Much of the show is essentially narrated by a man known as Billy Mound of Clouds (Leandro Cano), a gentle shoe salesman with a deep well of television references (the programs he refers to were very consistent with the setting in a way that garnered a lot of laughs from the TV-savvy LA crowd). Another storyline involves a young couple, Maddie (Jessica Goldapple) and Matt (Ian Merrigan) and their friend Eric (Eric Hunicutt). They share stories from their childhoods while drinking beer and Jägermeister, and while they take the longest to be integrated into the big picture story in a meaningful way, their connection to everything is the play’s most surprising and rewarding reveal. Samantha (Barbara Tarbuck) is an older woman nearing the end of her life who sadly looks back on the poor choices she’s made, particularly in regards to raising her children. Lisa (Deborah Puette), introduces herself to the audience with the revelation that she committed suicide the day before and is now “nowhere,” and explains the string of tragedies that led her there. Samuel (Karl Herlinger) and young Isaac (Tomek Adler) have the most shocking, disturbing storyline, and I feel that to describe it any further would give away too many of the play’s surprises.
The tone of the play is a bit difficult to grasp at times—there is a clear sense of tragedy and trepidation throughout that is often intentionally made light of, and even the humorous moments are very dark. Billy Mound of Clouds’s frequent references to Law & Order: SVU and House M.D. did well at breaking up the more difficult to watch scenes. There is a line between humor that is uncomfortable for a reason and humor that is just plain uncomfortable, and some of the jokes unfortunately leaned towards the latter for me. For example, there were many, many references made to how fat one of the characters used to be. While most of these jokes were made by a character who was clearly mentally unstable, they were still jarring in a way that I felt took away from the material rather than enhancing it.
While the structure and use of primarily monologues definitely helped to engage the audience in the performance, it also made it feel a bit disjointed at times. As soon as it became apparent that all of the storylines were going to intersect, I found some of the character moments were lost as I instead searched for how the various people might relate to one another. That being said, my jaw dropped more than once, and the cast did a fantastic job of setting the tone and painting full, complex pictures of the characters they portrayed in a very short amount of time. I have a feeling the tourism board of Idaho may not look kindly upon this play. As a portrait of small town life, American Falls is comprehensive and sad, but ultimately falls short of provocative.
American Falls runs through October 18th with performances on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The show is largely double cast, so some performances will feature actors other than those described here. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the Echo Theater Company’s website.