The American tradition as celebrated by Flannery O’Connor and Johnny Cash are exquisitely reexamined, creating a love story that is at times as sweepingly grand as it is poignantly intimate at others, in Undermain Theatre’s world premiere of Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel… by Len Jenkin.
Abraham Zobell (Fred Curchack) is a man returned from the dead, literally. His temporary expiration during a heart operation forced him into a long recovery under the watchful eye of his wife, Anna (Laura Jorgensen). Zobell only wants to make one last trip to the sea before he dies—a queer thought, because if he follows the strict regimen of rest, morphine and saline he will be able to go see the ocean as many times as he would like.
Like many adventurers, Zobell must obey man’s primordial longing for the sea and, unbeknownst to Anna, he slips out of the house and heads for the ocean. Unlike Joyce’s Ulysses, however, Zobell must only travel 10 miles. Here the story weds the traditional long journey and the adventure that takes place in one’s own backyard. The first fills a spiritual void that cannot be satisfied except through pilgrimage. The second elevates the parochial, showing the traveler that the thing he needed to fill the void was sitting in his living room the entire time. By blending these seemingly contradictory adventures, Jenkin puts a new significance on Zobell’s walk through the suburbs on a cold winter night to a cheap boardwalk that is closed for the season.
With a dramatic flair, Zobell takes a video camera with him in order to document the process, and sets out for the boardwalk.
“So they who come can see now where I went and how I traveled,” he said, preparing to step out of his door, dressed only in his pajamas and camelhair coat. Austin Switser’s video design lets the audience see through the eyes of Zobell’s camera—a silent, haunting perspective on the old man’s journey.
As he walks, Zobell sings and dances to the doo-wop songs from his youth, never imagining the macabre assortment of characters that he will meet over the next couple days as his quest is beset on all sides by obstacles disguised as concerned strangers offering rides home and sham wisdom. But Zobell is not alone in his quest, and he soon acquires a traveling companion, a 19-year-old runaway, Stella (played by a caustically vulnerable Katherine Bourne). Although the girl scoffs at the old man’s desire for the ocean, the same fire burns in them both, and the two pilgrims slowly open up to each other. Zobell even tells her his defining story, one of lost love on the boardwalk that he has been unable to articulate for years.
Music (designed and performed by Bruce DuBose) plays a central role in the story, heightening the feeling of epic poetry by moving the plot along at key points and conveying many of the characters’ emotions. The play’s opening song, the spiritual Now Let me Fly, sums up the protagonist’s yearning for his mother in the Promised Land as the hypocrites on the street block his progress.
Similar to his other work, Jenkin plays with the relationship between time and reality, and although he refrains from doing it through directly challenging the characters’ perception of the world (as he did in Time in Kafka), he uses the music to draw out a deeper meaning they perhaps were not even aware of.
The music’s revelatory character takes on the nature of Fate, to some degree. Although Zobell and other characters often sing the lyrics, the music is played, and sometimes chosen, by the blind piano player Sister Fleeta who watches over Zobell’s progress from her bar, the Dollhouse. Her henchmen add to the impression of Greek tragedy by commenting on the action with the sensibility and cadence of a Sophoclean chorus.
Music not only rounds out the dusty, American setting, but Zobell’s career as a high school English teacher provides ample material for literary parallels, of which the playwright, director and cast take full advantage. It is a testament to the ensemble that the play flowed as well as it did; the script was jam-packed with information that could easily have tripped up Zobell’s quest.
Fred Curchack’s Zobell never loses his sense of style. He dances; he sings; he easily makes friends with all he meets. He is the Duke of Earl. Curchack embraces these characteristics with such gusto that he buoys a role that could have easily slipped into either trite optimism or bland depression when he taps into the genuine sorrow arising from his guilt. A familiar face in Dallas Theater and becoming something of a regular at Undermain, Marcus Stimac deserves an honorable mention for the honesty he brings to both the kind hearted taxi driver and violent dope fiend. Although these are smaller roles than he has had in the past, his performance shows a marked step in his maturity as an actor.
No stranger to Jenkin, director Katherine Owens has a good eye for what to emphasize in order to make the beautifully interconnected story and somewhat ambiguous chronology develop into an exquisite performance.
All of the production’s design aspects developed under the watchful eye of Tony Award winning scenic designer John Arnone tell their own story of a faded American Dream, adding layer upon layer of meaning to the actors’ words. Linda Noland’s set, reminiscent of a cluttered thrift store co-op, evokes the dusty grandeur of tarnished fashion long relegated to the living rooms of college students with a weakness for nostalgia or irony. Complete living and bedroom sets are scattered across the stage, a Diaspora in still life.
Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel… runs at the Dallas City Performance Hall through Feb. 2.
110 minutes; 1, 15 minutes intermission.