Best described as an amorality play, Romulus Linney’s “True Crimes” details the seduction of a dimwitted youth into an act of violent, vicious crime, and if the play doesn’t exactly prove what Linney apparently wants it to — that crime becomes easier to rationalize with each bad deed committed –“True Crimes” certainly intrigues with its down-home depiction of spiraling evil.
Set in familiar Linney territory — the Appalachian Mountains of 1900 –“True Crimes” watches as Logan Lovel (David Johnson), a vacant and virile young stud who spends his time reading violent penny-dreadful pamphlets and unemotionally servicing his two girlfriends, is drawn into a moneymaking scheme sure to lead to no good. One of his girlfriends, the slightly older and very married Mary (Cheryl Haas), is trapped in loveless union with a wealthy (by mountain standards) old man dying of consumption. In a scheme hatched by Logan’s parents (well played by Daniel Martin and, especially, Christine Parks), Mary convinces her husband to hire the boy as a farmhand. Needless to say, Mary is more concerned with her own needs than the farm’s, and the Lovels are merely interested in grabbing some of the old man’s money and land.
When the old man discovers the illicit hayloft trysts, his demise can’t be left to nature. Logan’s mother and Mary take care of things with some poisonous herbs, but the crimes don’t end there. Logan has impregnated the old man’s daughter — Mary’s stepdaughter — and the complication must be attended to. This time, Logan himself is enlisted, with brutally violent results.
Linney, as both playwright and director, can’t resist the too-dramatic flourish, preferring a shovel when a quiet smothering would be more effective. And his depiction of malignant evil would be considerably more effective if his bad characters weren’t so bad from the start: Everyone onstage seems capable of murder from the get-go, with the possible exception of the vacuous Logan — and his pliability is never in doubt.
Still, Linney has penned at least one unforgettable character in Logan’s mother, Vangey. A mountain mama who approaches murder with the same no-nonsense determination she applies to other farmyard chores, Vangey is a chilling — and terrifically fun to watch — embodiment of the banality of evil. When the old man, poison already rushing through his body, is led away to what will be his deathbed, Vangey turns to the others and deadpans a creepy, simple “There.”
The role also provides the production its standout performance, though Johnson, as Logan, and Martin, as his father, also are fine. Mark Alan Gordon does a good job as the migrant farmhand who gives the play its O. Henry-ish ending, but the rest of the cast has trouble maintaining the mountain accents. E. David Cosier’s spare, wooden set, with country quilts as backdrop, strikes the properly homely touch even when Linney’s direction falters. The production’s final image, a stagy bit of business, prompted chuckles when chills were needed.