'Dirt' portrays chilly scenes in the winter of a man's life

November 03, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In "Dirt," the season-opening drama at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the elderly farmer played by Ralph Waite repeatedly states his three laws of farming: "Plant in the spring, harvest in the summer, plow in the fall."

Later, he adds, "But the winters, what do I do with my winters?"

Written by an actor/playwright named Bruce Gooch, "Dirt" examines the hard, unrelenting winter of life. With a cast of three and a running time of just under two hours, it's a small play about a big subject most of us would like to, but cannot, ignore -- old age.

Except for the ending, which puts an unrealistically gentle twist on the subject, it's a somewhat touching, if grim and slow-moving, drama. The production's strongest element, however, is Waite's performance.

Forget Pa Walton, whom he played for a decade on TV. In "Dirt," Waite -- his reddish hair dyed stark white -- is a cantankerous coot. To him, life is a battle you fight every day. Unlike John Walton, he's not a man you'd want to be related to, but as Waite plays him, he is a man you understand and respect.

The play begins with him calling his dog to round up the cows. But we quickly learn that he sold the cows a year ago, then shot the dog because "she didn't have a job no more."

These revelations set up half of the tragedy at the heart of the play. Waite's farmer is warring against the early stages of dementia; he's terrified that, like his dog, he "won't have a job no more."

The other half of the tragedy is the generational rift between the farmer and his estranged son, Zac, who returns home to care for him. The playwright has emphasized the role reversal these two undergo by naming Waite's character "Sonny." (He similarly emphasizes the pair's shared stubbornness by giving them the surname "Hardman").

As these names suggest, "Dirt" is not a subtle play, and Gooch telegraphs most of what's to come. The best example also reveals how the play's rare light moments heighten its dramatic potential. In the first act, to help Sonny untangle a harness, Zac creates a makeshift horse out of two pails, half of a barrel, a stool and a broom. A delightful little piece of stagecraft, it's responsible for some of the only levity between father and son.

But in the second act, the harness that led to this charming scene takes on an ominous role. Sonny's mental lapses have proved dangerous not only to himself but also to Zac. Whether out of guilt or latent love, Zac has promised to work the farm and not to hospitalize his father. But he's afraid to leave his father alone, and, as a last resort, he uses the harness to tether him to a tree.

Yet, for all the play's telegraphing, its ending comes out of the blue. Without giving it away, I will say that at least from a medical standpoint, the conclusion seems largely unfounded. In addition, anyone who's seen a loved one suffer from dementia knows this condition rarely results in such neat, simple solutions.

Furthermore, Bill Geisslinger's Zac doesn't seem worthy of an easy way out. We're told several times that he's as obstinate as his old man, and Geisslinger does demonstrate some of this Hardman hard-headedness, but he doesn't appear as deeply conflicted as he claims.

The play's third character is a local waitress who takes an interest in Sonny's welfare. A smaller role than the other two, it supplies the important point of view of an outsider unburdened with familial baggage, and Michele Pawk imbues it with warmth.

Andrew J. Traister's direction, while mostly low-key, is too plodding, even for life on a farm. In contrast, the ramshackle house and barn of Deborah Jasien's set are right on the mark; they are ever-present reminders of the state of the play's protagonist -- still standing, but not all there.

Subscriptions to the Mechanic are down this season, largely in reaction to seating changes caused by the shorter runs of the shows. Though the lesser numbers were evident at yesterday's matinee, a portion of that audience gave "Dirt" a standing ovation. It was impossible to tell whether the ovation was for the play or for Waite's fine performance, but he was the one who earned it.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Dirt"

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 20. Audio-described performances 2 p.m. Nov. 5 and 8 p.m. Nov. 8; sign-interpreted performances 8 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2 p.m. Nov. 12

Tickets: $15-$40

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

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