Two teenagers drag two freshly dead corpses into a storage unit. The moment they leave, the corpses sit up and start talking to each other, and it would be like nothing ever happened if not for the gaping bullet wounds in both of their chests.
This grisly scene sets the tone for That Long Damn Dark, a play by Ashley Rose Wellman currently in its west coast premiere at the Red Cup Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Directed by Laura Steinroeder, this gritty, disturbing story follows three couples bound together in unexpected ways by a murder.
Leah (Charmee Taylor) and Todd (Rod Hernandez-Farella) are only 17 and 18, respectively, and find themselves in way over their heads when they end up killing Leah’s slimy guardians, Ed (Dennis Baker) and Lorraine (Maura M. Knowles) in what is ostensibly an act of self defense. Broke and desperate, they flee to rural Arkansas hoping to find a temporary home with Todd’s distant aunt. The plan gets complicated when they arrive to find Todd’s aunt has passed away and the house is now occupied by a couple who just moved from New York, Ethan (Arthur James Solomon) and Mara (Leah Zhang). While Ethan is reluctant to take two fidgety teenage runaways into their new home, Mara insists they embrace the concept of “southern hospitality,” and before they know it they are very much a part of Leah and Todd’s volatile situation. Meanwhile, unable to move on without finding closure in their troubled relationship and getting justice for their murders, the ghosts of Ed and Lorraine continue to haunt the storage unit where their bodies were dumped, and they are never far from Leah and Todd’s thoughts and nightmares, either.
Wellman’s script skillfully disperses information in a way that is well-paced and compelling. Hints regarding the events in the home shared by Ed, Lorraine, and Leah that led to the murder are sprinkled throughout like breadcrumbs, but the full picture is not revealed until the play’s final scenes. While the clothing, props, and lack of cell phones suggest the setting to be sometime in the not so distant past, no benchmark is given until a casual reference to Reagan’s recession about halfway through. Facts are doled out only as needed, allowing the audience to speculate and draw their own conclusions, only for well-placed plot twists to change the perception of everything that came before.
Steinroeder’s direction made the most of the tiny space at the Atwater Village Theatre, especially considering the complicated structure of the piece. The action often switches between multiple locations as well as between the present, flashbacks, and occasionally hallucinations, and despite only having one very simple set, the shifts were always easy to follow. The cast, particularly Taylor and Hernandez-Farella, did an excellent job turning their characters into complex, fleshed-out human beings during the tight 90 minutes, and tension builds steadily throughout. The ending ultimately felt almost anti-climactic, but given the circumstances, that was almost a relief.
While the central crime is certainly the inciting incident and the event upon which everything else revolves, this play is at its best when it’s diving into the complicated relationships between the three very different couples involved. Leah and Todd’s new, young love is of course severely tested by the situation they land themselves in, and as the story continues, they realize there is a lot they still don’t know about each other. Ethan, a writer, and Mara, a doctor, are struggling to find their footing in a new home that could not be more different from the life they were used to, and clash over whether or not they want to have children. Finally, Ed and Lorraine have their own set of secrets and unresolved issues they need to come clean about before they can truly move on from their newfound purgatory. Ultimately, only two of these storylines really achieve resolution, although you can easily draw your own conclusions about the third. While a few of the turns in the plot are familiar and expected, there are one or two genuine surprises to be found along the way, and many moments of unexpected humor built in amongst the grim subject matter.
The Red Cup Theatre Company focuses on presenting “bold, contemporary theater” and proudly supports the LA Female Playwrights Initiative. That Long Damn Dark runs through February 19th at the Atwater Village Theatre. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at http://www.redcuptheatreco.com/.