No Rules Theatre Late: A Cowboy SongBy David Siegel • Jan 9th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
No Rules Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through January 19th
90 miutes without intermission
$30-$50 (Plus Significant Fees)
Reviewed January 4th, 2014
Keeping its attitude as an adventurous theater troupe willing to tackle provocative issues, No Rules Theatre has produced a plucky look at a very early Sarah Ruhl play first produced in 2003, Late: A Cowboy Song. It is a stylized glimpse at trying to grow-up when choices seem limited. It is a peak into one young woman’s journey from the wreckage of a life as wife and unexpected motherhood into a less-traditional life style; one with a sense of danger.
In opening remarks at a recent performance introducing this DC area première, Joshua Morgan, Artistic Director, indicated that No Rules would continue to be “a socially conscious theater company that wanted to explore identity in all its facets and forms.”
The No Rules production gives local theater-goers who have seen later productions of Ruhl works the opportunity to see her beginning efforts. It wasn’t that long after Late that Ruhl took off into an ascension to receive an MacArthur Award for “creating vivid and adventurous theatrical works that poignantly juxtapose the mundane aspects of daily life with mythic themes of love and war.”
The story line of Late: A Cowboy Song speaks to the turbulence, tensions and travails of a young couple (Crick and Mary). They have known each other since grade school. Now their marriage has become increasingly loveless and dull. They may have grown in chronological age, but they seem stuck as children, emotionally. Mary has a chance encounter with an old school chum; who comes off as the stoic “Marlboro Man” of yore, but is a female cowboy with the moniker Red, the Cowboy.
Over the course of the 90 minute, intermission-free production, Red moves from hovering at the fringes of the stage and Mary’s life, into a central and transforming presence. Mary begins to question her bleak life. Slowly, ever so slowly, an infatuation grows between Mary and Red. Crick is unprepared for any changes in his rock-solid view of what family life should be. For him, family means a version of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. In additional unexpected pressure on their unspooling marriage, Mary and Crick have an unplanned baby. They can’t decide on the baby’s name or the baby’s gender; the baby is born intersexed. As Mary says about the medical decisions made by others, “So I guess it’s a girl now. I don’t know why they couldn’t have left well enough alone.”
Finally, there are major issues about time between Mary and Crick. Somehow, for whatever reason, Mary regularly comes home late to dinners prepared by her husband. She is late in growing up too.
The three characters are played by Chris Dinolfo (Crick), Sara Oimstead Thomas (Mary), and Alyssa Wilmoth (Red, the Cowboy). The baby goes by two names; Jill as the husband wants, and Blue as the mother likes.
The production is a close-in view of contrasts with very deliberate pacing set by director Rex Dougherty. In his program notes, Dougherty wrote that “Late, A Cowboy Song has taught me to value ‘slowliness’ in my work and daily life.” He continued to say that the play shows that life is not just about “doing” but about “being.” And that “taking a pause to reflect upon our own evolution is a necessary step of growth.”
Dinolfo plays Crick as a “lost” young man with a fragile nature. He can be fast-talking and manipulative yet with the cover of boyish charm, at least when taken in short doses. He is constantly in motion as a stay-at-home dad, who cooks dinner and cares for his new baby. But he has difficulty holding down a job. He often carries a baseball bat ala Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men.” Dinolfo “lives” Crick by puffing up quickly into loud emotional outbursts, then reduced to needing hugs and reassurance. His displays of affection are not intimate, merely selfishly physical.
Sara Olmsted Thomas plays Mary as all locked-up inside; emotionally stinted. A shrink might say she shows “no effect.” Her on-stage appearance and demeanor is of one of trying to be physically invisible inside her clothes, except for her waist length single hair braid. It is after Red’s arrival that she begins to blossom. Poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “You’ve kissed my hair to wake me.” That is the trajectory for Mary as her feelings begin to grow for Red. From Rich again, “in these hands / I could trust the world….” And beyond the presence of Red and a new baby in her life, was her learning to ride a horse taught by Red. It provided a sense of freedom previously unknown. And a way to get physically get in touch with herself.
Alyssa Wilmoth is Red, The Cowboy. Wilmoth is a marvel as a slow-talking, laconic, confident actor in her role. She has a patience and edgy strength about her. She doesn’t have lots of dialogue, but does sing about ten songs and play an acoustic guitar that are added narrative devises and scene transition pieces. Without a back-story, Wilmoth gives her character an air of risk, that someone would want to fall for. Visually she is in a plaid shirt, waist-length light brown leather jacket, and a short rat-tail. The rest of her is hidden by a large cowboy hat.
Wilmoth lines are quirky pause-makers. In describing Crick, Red uses the phrase, “Your onion is some else’s water lily.” When gazing at Mary, Red looks down with a knowing glance and small smile, “Is your cactus dry?” And when there is a short chat over a blank slip in a fortune cookie. Mary still a pessimist takes the blank slip to signify doom. To Red it means a clean slate for a new life. It is then that Mary, takes a deep breath, lightens up and decides to make the break from Crick.
And then there is a lyric sung by Red about how people can seem if they are not in touch with their true selves to describe Mary. “The girl riding a horse with a mask on.”
Scenic design and mood-arousing lighting is by Cory Ryan Frank with sound design by Brandon Roe. They add layers to the production’s feel. The set has three play areas across the length of the black box of Signature’s The ARK. From audience left there is a corral area framed by some wooden movable fences. At audience right is a messy kitchenette with a sitting area. The middle is a crossing area. Only Olmstead Thomas moves across the stage.
Sound is an important technical element. Pre-show music is full of country and western music and songs of heartbreak such as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Patty Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” To depict mental tensions there are short sequence of a violin played like the buzzing in one’s head. There are also two choreographed dance sequences. One of Mary and Crick in a fantasy ballet duet and the other between Mary and Red that is a slow two-step dance of learning one another.
As the play reaches it climax, Mary speaks, “I’m glad I’m grown up now.” Maybe, but to this reviewer doubtful. At least not yet. There are plenty of more roads for her and her baby Blue to take. Late: A Cowboy Song is a cunning little early play by Ruhl. That is a reason alone to see it; to see how Ruhl has “grown up” into the major force she is now as a playwright.
Photos by Second Glance Photography
- Crick: Chris Dinolfo
- Mary: Sara Olmsted Thomas
- Red, The Cowboy: Alyssa Wilmoth
- Director/Co-Composer: Rex Daugherty
- Scenic Design and Lighting: Cory Ryan Frank
- Costume Design: Lynly Saunders
- Sound Design: Brandon Roe
- Co-Composer: Kinsey Charles
- Technical Director: Jason Kraznarich
- Stage Manager: Julie Mayer
Disclaimer: No Rules Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10030.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.