It’s chest-beating time at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which opens its 14th season with a thumping delivery of what it does best: frontal attacks on edgy material about alienated people pushed to the point of violence. Midwesterner Craig Wright writes well-mannered plays that can benefit from this rough-and-tumble treatment. The ideas he floats about the corrosion of American values don’t really coalesce in “Lady,” which finds childhood friends facing their buried hostilities while on a hunting trip. But a fierce ensemble, helmed by Dexter Bullard, fearlessly plugs the plot gaps with pyrotechnical displays of all-American characters in existential extremis.
The lost boys in Wright’s latest play (after “The Pavilion,” “Orange Flower Water,” et al) once had a lot in common. But that was back in their school days when, as one of these bad boys puts it with eloquent simplicity, “we used to be lost together. Now,” he adds, sadly, “we’re lost apart.”
True to form, set designer John McDermott overcomes the shallowness of the Rattlestick stage and gives the guys a wonderful environment in which to get lost. The deep woods of Illinois seem to stretch into infinity, thick with vegetation, ablaze in fall colors and vibrating with the suggestive sounds of hunters and animal life — a nice illusion advanced by Nicole Pearce’s painterly lighting and Eric Shim’s wrap-around soundscape.
So, how lost are these chronologically grown-up, but emotionally immature boys?
Dyson (Paul Sparks) was the gang’s daredevil hero, until he gave up a full scholarship at Northwestern to stay close to home. Nowadays, this golden boy is a cruel and bitter man who cheats on his wife, belittles his best friend, and has so thoroughly alienated his 18-year-old son, Duncan, that the kid is ready to enlist in the Marines to escape.
Inexplicably, Wright doesn’t bother to say — indeed, barely hints at — the causal factors of the all-consuming rage that turned Dyson so virulently anti-social. But while there’s no telling what Sparks had to go through to get to the core of this angry man, he cracks him open and lays his heart bare.
In a perf bristling with raw energy, he taps the wild streak of self-destructive impulses that drives Dyson to do the absolute worst thing he could possibly do in any given situation. Frustrating as it is to watch a character whose motives are a deep secret to all but his author, Sparks makes this volatile figure irresistibly appealing.
As for Graham (David Wilson Barnes), who can tell what got into this onetime political reformer and shining hope of his party? Once he got elected to the state legislature, he turned coat and became a Bush conservative, arguing so persuasively for America’s military mission “to defend and spread democracy and freedom” that he convinces the unseen Duncan to sign up and fight in Iraq.
Barnes plays it cool, making no apologies and offering no explanations for Graham’s political about-face. But the character seems so distant and out of touch with his old buddies that some kind of rationale for his participation in this ritualistic hunting trip seems necessary, but is not forthcoming. And — a note here to costumer Tif Bullard — surely a guy like that would have made some effort to bond with his pals by matching them in manly dishevelment.
Wright pens realistic dialogue and helmer Bullard is a wunderkind at orchestrating the chopped-up lines and well-chewed insults that constitute manly conversation. But while the showdown between Dyson and Graham produces dramatic sparks, it doesn’t ignite because their fight is over Duncan, an offstage shadow figure, instead of Kenny (Michael Shannon), the obvious heart of the play.
Just as written, Kenny is a heartbreaker. Watching his wife dying of cancer, worried about his little girls, and so deep into mind-numbing drugs he seems soft in the brain, Kenny yearns for the simpler, kinder world he has conjured up from childhood memories and old movies. Finding consolation in his love for his hunting dog, Lady, Kenny challenges his antagonistic friends to appreciate her essential goodness — and the goodness of everything she represents.
In one potent speech, Dyson rails against the politicians who cynically manipulate people like Kenny, who wonders exactly who he’s talking about. “I mean America,” Dyson tells Kenny. “You’re America.”
Shannon (“Bug,” “The Little Flower of East Orange”) is a straight-from-the-gut actor who finds ways to make Kenny even more poignant. Using his eyes to register bafflement, his stooped shoulders to ward off another verbal blow, his gasping breath to say farewell to Lady, this astonishing thesp turns Kenny from the play’s forgotten man to the reason why it lingers in the mind.