Thursday, October 11, 2007

PLAY: "Good Heif"

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Good Heif, a new play by Maggie Smith, takes place in a timeless, arid wasteland, where sons, their pa's, their pa's pa's, their pa's pa's pa's, and all all's spend or spent their lives diggin'. They do so without question, entrenched in an unnamed pain that they overcome by becoming inured to it. The pleasure of sex is now the violence of "fuck," a euphemistic "diggin'" that Pa (a gruff and believable John McAdams) suggests the growing Lad (Christopher Ryan Richards) attend to with any ol' heifer. Sex is a fragile dust-thing, like the rest of their limbo existence, and Ma (Barbara Pitts) refuses to even acknowledge it ("ya plant an appley seed and then it grows and so do ye--Everyone knows"). In fact, she won't even touch her family, and Pa and Lad can only watch her darkly comic seizures, yelling at her to get up, a resilience that qualifies Ma as "a good woman." No surprise then that there's no God here, just a Devil that they must pray away.

This reluctant emotion, this closeted heart, makes Good Heif itself into an arid wasteland. Overly stylized and lost in metaphor, the script may beat to the same measured staccato of the diggin', but it isn't bearing any fruit either, and once it outgrows the incipient laughs, it thuds. As farce, such methodical emphasis works (as in Greg Kotis's Pig Farm); it works as an emotional substitute, too (as in New George's last production, Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear). To make overbearing language represent something far subtler, however: that's a real trick. Sarah Cameron Sunde manages to sustain the pace for a while by reducing the acting to stark physical movements. But clockwork scenes, already drilled short by the (James) Ellroy-like language, have a weakness: their gears tend to gum up in intense, shriveling heat of an unflinching poet.

From the two-foot long erection in Lad's pants and the discovery of wet, soft, bubbling holes in the earth, it seems clear that Smith means to deal with sexual maturation versus the stubborn religious mores of previous generations. But Lad is too weak a character to rebel, which leads to another character, the horned Ol' Heif (April Matthis), who represents either a wily devil or a faun-like manifestation of Lad's subconscious need for the female touch. She, crawling across midnight rocks with crevasses gleaming with glowstick light, is playful freedom; he, stiff-backed and waddling like a pencil, wears a corset around his hips and is repressed "normal." But these moments between Lad and Ol' Heif are too dreamlike to give an easy answer, and the play lives up to its own credo: "Work is what livin's for." Good Heif is work, and while it's work filled with life, it ends up simply being work and work alone.

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