Sadly, there’s no better time for “The Secret Agenda of Trees,” Colin McKenna’s tense drama of modern rural poverty and American discontent. With a script that gently lays out the bleak lives of its full characters — who have everything from MS-13 to crank to worry them — the Gotham-based playwright’s soph production is a promising one. The piece has only a vague sense of place (its setting is “a rural community in the U.S.”) and its structure could use some vigorous polishing, but McKenna’s enthusiasm for life-and-death conflict over politicking or preening pays off in spades.
Fluidly staged by Michael Kimmel, the play displays a knack for the theatrical eagerly exploited by its three excellent leads. Lillian Wright plays single mom Maggie, whose dreams for her daughter Vernie (a valiant Reyna de Courcy, who has some the play’s least speakable lines) are perpetually in danger from her drug habit. There’s a new threat on the horizon, too, although it’s never fully realized: Jack (Michael Tisdale), a charming, slightly menacing drifter who approaches Maggie after a night of flirting at a bar.
Jack is both the most interesting character in the play and the best-performed; Tisdale strikes a precarious balance between creepy and fun that keeps us on our toes whenever he ambles onto the stage. Happily, McKenna leaves him unsolved, and leaves us wondering. Is Jack a child molester? Is he a drug dealer? Is he just a nice, unlucky guy? Where did he come from?
For that matter, where are we? McKenna’s script has three large problems that keep it from being the astonishing play he clearly has the capacity to write. First, the nonspecific setting betrays either a lack of interest or a lack of knowledge — no place is just a place, and the characters’ different Southern accents confuse things further (even if they’re all pretty good).
Then there’s the problem of Vernie’s dialogue. The 14-year-old composes letters to her school crush Carlos (Christian Navarro) and to her soldier brother Dixon, away in Iraq, in a pseudopoetic idiom that shows up almost exclusively in work by young writers. It may look nice on the page, but it hurts the ear.
The last problem is the play’s final scene, of which there are three. One is too sweet, one is too sour, and one ties up a subplot that seems half-baked anyway. It’s hard to say what the ending should be, but none of the choices is satisfying.
For all its faults, though, there’s an urgency about this play that seems to come from outside New York, and that’s a valuable thing. Meth, recession, gang violence and war fatalities are all larger problems in rural America than they are in the city, and they’re growing in a way McKenna seems anxious to explore. It’s gratifying to see him doing that without preaching politics.
Even around the production’s universally lazy design work, the show crackles with justified confidence in its characters and their stories. These people are recognizable not from sitcoms or movies, but from life.