Jan Buttram gets nice mileage from the vintage vehicle, circa 1946, that inspired “Phantom Killer.” The unsolved case of a masked bandit who was robbing and killing residents of a rural Texas town that summer becomes the framework for a tough character study of a local girl so desperate to get out of town she puts her trust in men with trouble written all over them. Beaucoup tension is built up on a sliver of a stage, but in these tight quarters the cat-and-mouse action — which leaves the murder mystery unsolved — is too confined for comfort.
Buttram (“Texas Homos”) has a real feel for the impoverished areas of East Texas, where the economic depression lingered well into the lean postwar years. “Nobody can find a job these days,” one of the locals says tonelessly. “You can’t even get hired at the tomato sheds ’cause the niggers and the Mexicans work for nothing.” You can hear the despair in the flat dialect in which characters matter-of-factly swap hard-luck stories about being dumped at an orphanage or gang-raped by their schoolmates.
As children of this dirt-poor region of rural America, newlyweds Jessie (Wrenn Schmidt) and Luke (Jon McCormick) know all about being kicked around by their parents and peers. “Sometimes it’s like I can’t get nobody to look at me,” says Jessie, in the play’s eloquently blunt idiom.
No wonder these young outcasts want to get out of town — even if it means stealing a car. (The backside of a 1940 Dodge Coupe thrusts itself provocatively into designer David B. Ogle’s spare stage set, atmospherically lit by Travis McHale.) Or something worse.
Buttram doesn’t entirely convince us that Jessie and Randy would park at night on a deserted dirt road with a serial killer on the loose. And despite the broad hints dropped into the plot when a sadistic Texas Ranger named Randy (Denny Bess) comes across their car, they don’t fit the Bonnie and Clyde profile for spree killers.
What does ring true, though, is the sense of desperation in the couple’s dreamy plans to drive to New Orleans and begin a new life together. Jessie’s acute need to escape her shadowy past comes through in her plaintive promise to her new husband. “I’m going to be a whole new person,” she tells him. “You’re going to make me over, Luke.”
Under Jules Ochoa’s tight helming, all three characters in this rural gothic tale are drawn with precision. Playing the good ol’ boy-with-a-hidden-agenda, Bess (an Ensemble Studio Theater vet) proves adept at keeping Randy’s sadistic streak in check until the scary moment this randy ranger gets down to business. McCormick, a new face worth watching, has an air of innocence that keeps us guessing about Luke’s true feelings for Jessie.
The pivotal player in this deadly dance is Jessie, the “high-strung” bride whose secrets are gradually, almost tenderly revealed by Schmidt (“Jailbait”) in a perf that respects her complexities even as it exposes her pain. “Every time I get a plan going, it turns to nothing,” she says in desperation. “I can’t get a future.”
Buttram succeeds in making Jessie both a product of her cultural era, when women needed the protection of men to survive, and victim of the men she chooses to provide that protection. But she’s just as much a victim of her own false faith in men, and Schmidt makes us care very much about the fact that “every last hope I got” is based on fantasy.
But sensitively drawn characters do not a play make; “Phantom Killer,” which presents itself as a mystery, lets us down by failing to honor the cheesy, but necessary conventions of its own genre. For all the surprising things we learn about Jessie and Luke and even Randy, we never do find out who the killer is. And that’s a crying shame.