The Rimers of Eldritch
by Lanford Wilson
Theatre St. Thomas
One of the most surprising things about Lanford Wilson's durable The Rimers of Eldritch is how often such an overwhelmingly challenging script gets produced -- mainly by regional theatres and schools and universities. Unlike Thornton Wilder's Our Town, to which it is often compared (and with which it's occasionally paired, as in Theatre Saint Thomas' current production), its difficulties are immediately apparent on the page. Overlapping, elliptical, and sometimes choral dialogue, a radical disregard of chronology, and a deeply ironic stance toward the material, which renders both cast and audience in ethical positions which are the furthest thing from comfortable: all this combines with a challenging set of stage conventions (beginning with the one that provides that all seventeen actors -- none of whom are in safely minor roles -- are on stage the entire time).
One reason for its enduring reputation and popularity is, of course (like Our Town) the size and range of the cast. Another seems, oddly, to be its appeal to young people's frequent sense of being confined in a hypocritical world where moral pretense and selective blindness mask an underlying, repellent savagery. It would make sense to expect that this savage satire, so clearly a product of its time (the play debuted in 1966) might feel pretty dated. Somehow, though, it still resonates, with its appalled take on the life of a small, decaying town in the American Bible belt -- and also in the rust belt, a coalmining town whose coal has run out -- with its shrinking population clinging to a sanctimonious hellfire and damnation faith. It's a faith which believes, in the view of the Preacher / Judge who is the dominant voice of the play, that to assume guilt for an act is to accept that you should have noticed a potential evildoer and expelled or expunged him before he had a chance to do the evil. When the Preacher excoriates the congregation for "the laxity with which we met the obligations of our Christian lives. The blindness from which we allowed evil in our lives," he clearly means that the potential evil person should have been preemptively identified, shunned and cast out. A good, solid rush of contempt for hypocrisy is always a good feeling, and especially good if you're young and don't quite realize the extent of your own hypocrisy yet.
Still, the difficulty of the script is daunting. In many ways it's rather more like a choral reading than a conventional script, and many lines in the play connect only for the audience, not for the characters on stage, because they're drawn from different times and places and uttered at a particular point because they're part of a structure that's almost musical. Lanford Wilson is careful, when it's necessary for us to know, to give us enough information that we can infer when and where things happen; but for many of the conversations in the play that's not necessary: his justly famed ear for the way people talk gives us conversations that, we're sure, could be happening pretty any time in the history of Eldritch (and in fact some of them occur, complete or in fragments, two or three times in the script).
The script is often characterized as, at bottom, a murder mystery, but in fact there's no mystery at all: the event that's the center of the play is that the town derelict is shot, mistakenly, by a woman who might or might not believe that he's in the act of committing a rape -- when, in fact, he's in the act of preventing one. The play itself presents us fragments of conversations before and after this event, including what seems to be a trial. The conversations all in some way or other illuminate the event, even when they really don't directly related to it: they give the audience a clear sense of the kind of place Eldritch is, and why it might be that the 70 people left in the dying town create scapegoats, victims and outcasts, punishing them so that they can feel better about lives which are, in the last analysis, pretty empty and hopeless.
Ilkay Silk's Theatre Saint Thomas production takes all this on, stretching to the limit a fine, solid cast, a remarkable sound designer and lighting and stage designer, and producing a show which will stick in its audience's mind for a long while. Building on essentially the same set that the previous week's production of Our Town used (but with a significant increase in detail), the production establishes a half dozen or so locations around the split acting space (with the audience on opposite sides), locations which are, in general, pretty consistent. A number of the spaces are dominant. One is the porch glider on which the town gossips, Martha and Wilma (the solid and reliable Jennifer Roberge-Renaud and Robyn Lee Seale) trade condesendingly sympathetic condemnations of their neighbours ("Ours is not to judge," Martha says, judging), the bracken-covered den where the town's recluse, Skelly, hides, and where he meditates, in a remarkable performance by Bryan Leger, on the morality of Eldritch ("People don't care! They don't see. What they want to think they think; what they don't they don't"). There's also the café where the similarly outcast Cora (in a subtle and touching performance by Marissa Robinson), runs a business and tries to mind her own, but is clucked about in town for taking in a younger man, Walter (the consistently scary Clark Colwell), as a "helper," and scandalizing the village with the way she carries on. And there's the odd space where Nelly (Robyn Williams, looking appropriately lost and desperate), who finally wields the fatal shotgun, tries without much success to care for her dementia-addled mother (Bethany Brown, with an absolutely dotty hat pulled down on her head), who is yet another of the outcasts of the play. And there's the lectern / pulpit, up over the southeast exit door, from where the thunder of the Judge and / or the Preacher (the booming James Corbett) lays down the law.
There are too many characters and too many spaces in this rich production to list and name. As is usually the case in Theatre Saint Thomas productions, it's the whole that matters. Some moments, and some performances, however, supported by that powerfully orchestrated and choreographed ensemble, especially stick in the memory. I've already mentioned Bryan Leger's powerfully structured and paced monologue, placing the derelict and ostracized Skelly squarely at the center of the play, and of our sympathy; and Marissa Robinson's portrayal of perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play -- especially, perhaps, the moment when she tries to seal the relationship with Walter by suggesting "they" might sell the café and go off to Chicago or St. Louis, and we realize that Walter, hearing that "they" as including him, is suddenly in flight mode ("I can't say I like St. Louis much"). There's also the frightening moment when Vivien Zelazny, as Eva's mother, her face distorted into a rictus of self-conscious and sanctimonious suffering, screams her rage at Cora for suggesting that perhaps she doesn't quite understand what happened between her daughter and Robert and Skelly ("My daughter is a virgin! She's pure! She's a Christian, from a Christian home; a daughter of God and you'd put your word again the word of a virgin. A beer-swilling harlot"). And Jeff Dingle's utterly clear, open and natural Robert, trying not to be what the town wants him to be, and ultimately failing all the tests, testifying falsely, over and over, about the crucial moment ("he took us by surprise, he pushed me, he hit me from behind, he's tremendously strong, I don't know if I passed out or not").
All these moments, however, and all the others that might be mentioned, occur in, and acquire their power from, an overall plan that choreographs the language and the physical movement and placement of the actors into one tightly structured, seamless experience. It's the apparently effortless shifting from focus to focus, the unobtrusive but powerful moving of groups of people around the stage, the subtle and perfectly timed lighting changes and sound cues, that are most important in creating the experience. In spite of the fact that there's an almost complete dislocation of temporal order, the production moves with the kind of inevitability you associate with music toward that explosive climax where we finally see the crucial scene around which the play has centered, and we understand that the Skelly who had been characterized, over and over, as "the evil among us," as "capable" of who knows what, wanted only to save Robert from becoming what the town was inexorably shaping him into.
If some of the acting spaces seem a bit out of the way, perhaps too far from the center of the action and difficult for everyone in the audience to see, it would seem unavoidable if you want to do with the center of the acting space what this production does, which is to make it everywhere and nowhere, a church, a courtroom, a street, a forest, nowhere in particular, a place where people talk and where awful things are done. If because of the configuration of the space some characters played dominantly to one half of the audience or the other (if you are on the east side of the stage, you miss much of the clucking and by-play between the town gossips; if you are on the west, you miss much of the self-regarding and ostentatious suffering of Eva's mother, Evelyn. But it is just this configuration, this splitting of the audience which gives us that continuous sense of being complicit in the action, of knowing that others are seeing this too, and which affords striking theatrical moments such as those when the entire cast becomes the audience in the courtroom, facing the Judge on his elevated lectern ten feet above them, or swing round to face the other way (all except the outcast Cora) as the Judge becomes the Preacher and they become the congregation, singing their hymns and shouting their "Amen"s as the thundering James Corbett in the dual role lays down the law and proclaims the truth. Or the ones when suddenly a thunderous overhead gavel raps and a spotlight picks out a witness in the midst of the crowd, testifying or swearing to tell the truth, so help her God.
If there's anything missing in this production, it's the itch and rub and lure of sex which suffuses Lanford Wilson's script. It's this which drives the play, and it's this incessant preoccupation which motivates most of the characters, and most of the actions. It's there from the opening conversation about Cora and Walter ("What I heard isn't fit for talk," are the first words of Wilson's script) to the very end, as Alicia Kennedy's wonderfully trampy Patsy's sexy, breathless voice-over echoes in our ears as she seduces (if that's the right word) the wandering Walter, and we contemplate the prone figure of the dead Skelly. It's there in Skelly's reminiscences about the woodshed and Old Man Reiley's daughter ("oh, how she did squirm"), and as Lena and Josh (touchingly played by Kate Sandeson and Mike Woodside) figure out how far to go (and not to go), and, most centrally, in the climactic scene where Eva provokes Robert by taunting him about sex ("Boys have to be older. But I'll bet your brother could anyway. I might as well because she thinks we do anyway") and things get out of hand. In this production virtually all of that is verbal: the closest we come to seeing it is in the intimate glances between Cora and Walter, and the scene where Lena fends off Josh's wandering hands.
In the end, though, perhaps we don't need it: the desperation that pushes people into this kind of social and religious sanctimony and intolerance, the sense of loss and aimlessness that leaves raw power and raw sex the only motives that seem able to shape what people do, are so powerfully enacted in the shape of the production that the audience is left sufficiently uncomfortable and thoughtful. To what extent, we're left wondering as we leave the theatre, do we live in spooky, doomed Eldritch too?