Physical violence, both explicit and implied, is part of the fuel that drives “Columbus Day,” a dark drama by Forrest Attaway about death and dysfunction in Texas.
Attaway offers frequently vivid dialogue and idiosyncratic characters in this somewhat disjointed narrative about a young woman who has made her way through the world in a series of sad, inappropriate relationships. The world premiere, directed by Bryan Moses for the Living Room, showcases a handful of strong performances.
By Attaway’s own account, this is a result of two plays that he merged. In his effort to reveal seemingly unrelated events gradually, Attaway sets up a potentially exciting dramatic structure that still has some rough edges. This production has its share of awkward moments and never quite captures the best qualities of Attaway’s script.
The piece opens in a high school classroom full of whimpering students, played by a chorus of eight actors who become a recurring presence onstage as they are called on to execute the frequent rearrangements of furniture and set pieces between scenes.
The reason for their dismay is the presence of their suicidal teacher (Ben Auxier), who has come to class with a shotgun. His plan, apparently, is to terrorize the kids into opening their minds and forgoing their petty concerns before the episode plays out to its inevitable conclusion.
A parallel story focuses on Bree (Christiana Coffey), a woman with a history of drug abuse who is in a relationship with a cold-blooded, ethically challenged lawyer named Mason (Jeff Smith). Bree has become pregnant, and Mason is pressuring her to have an abortion.
In a desperate bid to keep her baby, Bree takes refuge in a home for unwed mothers, where she befriends another expectant mom, Blanca (Meredith Wolfe), and Doug (Coleman Crenshaw), a social worker who counsels the women. Doug’s recommendation will carry a lot of weight in determining whether Bree gets to keep her baby.
The classroom scenes, which are staged as a series of vignettes, are grimly comic, thanks to Auxier’s memorable performance as Josh, the fatalistic teacher who berates his students for their gross ignorance and their hormone-driven priorities. Auxier’s deadpan monologues are a highlight of the production.
Coffey, who according to her bio has never played straight drama before, alternates between moments of authentic emotion and passages where the subtleties of the script elude her. Now and then the performance comes to life with startling clarity.
The charismatic Smith, who has a tendency to rush his lines, appears to relish the opportunity to play a scumbag, although the performance is less nuanced than it needs to be.
Wolfe delivers the best performance in the show. Her take on Blanca renders the character endearing, somewhat mysterious, frequently funny and ultimately disturbing. Wolfe makes Blanca larger than life, which suits the material.
Crenshaw, as usual, is effective without being too showy. His laid-back version of a low-level bureaucrat is amusingly convincing.
Attaway has given us an episodic play that would probably work better as a film. Onstage, it’s difficult to create and sustain dramatic momentum when we have to break every few minutes for a set change.
Even so, there’s real substance in the piece. The take-away seems to be that (a) people in authority can never be trusted, (b) people will do whatever they must to survive and (c) the powerless are destined to be crushed by the system.
Of the design elements, the best work comes from Moose Kimball, whose lighting does a lot to establish mood and to smooth over scene transitions.