EL PASO by Michael Miller
Directed by Philip Akin
Opened at the Factory Theatre
October 4, 2002.
EL PASO overflows with Afro-American family rage but it is not a raging polemic. It is about the seething anger, bitterness, and hatred of family members, and it is more than this. It is about choices and their consequences, of dreams and their burdens. It is a raw, rough play, relentless in its menacing rhetoric, and you would need a heart of stone not to be affected by its power.Yes, it shows its seams, and yes, it is not neatly packaged, but m'dear, this is not a play for puritans. It crackles and pops¨not like bubbling brown sugar but like boiling hot lava.
Michael Miller, Chalmer's-Award winner for a children's play (Birds of a Feather), has taken El Paso, Texas, as his setting because his own grandfather settled there and because it represented hope for blacks after the failure of Reconstruction. The gruff but determined old patriarch Pa Stiller summarizes how he and other sons of slaves ended up there: "Riots. Lynchings. No place to just be human. To have a house free from care. I got the hell out of East Texas and moved west. This was heaven. Bad soil so you never had to bend your back working some field for nothing. Mexico at your back in case you need to run." Pa owns the biggest house in the region, so El Paso has grown in his mind as an emblem of freedom. Despite this, his house (which is itself imperiled by industrial progress and a daughter's revenge) does not protect the three generations of women from their respective hells of emotional slavery.
The play travels back and forth in time, and distributes its focus among eight characters, though the main figure at centre stage is Vivian, Pa's granddaughter, who is dying of cancer in Washington where she is trapped in a loveless marriage to Junior, a lecher who matches her in vitriolic verbal battle. Vivian, however, compounds her entrapment by locking herself in her bedroom from where she spews her bitter anger while being denied food¨an obvious symbol of nurturing care and love¨by Junior.
The bulk of the play concerns itself with Vivian's desperate plight and her grief for her young son Marcus who died accidentally, but in moving backward and forward in time, the storyline is a little confusing for an audience. Nonetheless, there is no denying the power of the themes and dialogue. All the women have interesting stories to tell: Vivian's mother, Ida Lee, is a flirtatious schoolteacher who defies her father and neglects her daughters Vivian and Tiny. She has designs on Charlie but cannot rid herself of the guilt for having delayed to act on her father's insistence that she settle scores with Junior through violence, if necessary. And then there is Tiny, who works as janitor at her mother's school, and Juanita, Vivian's anxious daughter. Both these women are trapped in the continuing cycle of family resentments.
Though not all the roles are well-balanced, and though the story ends with a sentimental coda that abruptly ends the cycle of rage, EL PASO is a powerful piece of visceral theatre. Miller writes the most uncompromisingly scabrous dialogue for dysfunctional family members who assault one another verbally and emotionally with cruel relish. Insults explode like dynamite. "You rancid piece of chitlin meat!" Pa says to Ida Lee, and Junior torments Vivian: "There's only one thing I want from you. A date. Your dying date." The actors in Akin's production respond dynamically to their opportunities for invective. David Collins as Junior carries his character all the way through his savage emotional sadism and cunning. Satori Shakoor, while monotonous at times, has all of Vivian's unthrottled fury and even manages to make her vulnerable when it counts. Jeff Jones, left by playwright and director to his own corner of the stage, makes Pa a memorable figure of anger, sarcasm, and melancholy. Lili Francks is allowed the most fun as Ida, and she seizes her moments of flirtatiousness and irony, though in her later appearance as a sly, old avenger, she gives only the roughest outline of character-acting. Rothaford Gray's sweetness as Charlie is countered by Amanda Brugel's distress as Juanita and Kim Roberts' sharp tongued but otherwise warm Tiny.
Julia Tribe has designed a set which borrows the curved ramps from her earlier design for Belle. It gives but the roughest suggestion of Texas with cactus plants and rocks at the corners, but otherwise it is spare of dTcor¨perhaps a shrewd choice in terms of a text that shows how characters can be entrapped not only by walls or rooms or history, but by their own minds and hearts.
Keith Garebian's new book is The Making of 'Guys and Dolls'.