Tragedy is the unwanted gift that keeps on giving. Those touched by it are never completely the same; some victims try to heal or repress their feelings, but others can’t get over their loss and simply suffer. Brett Neveu’s new play “American Dead” explores how members of a small town deal differently with the aftermath of a senseless shooting. The Rogue Machine presentation of this West Coast premiere is a moving study of muted sorrow, full of subtle character moments from an expert cast.
Five years ago, Deputy Grace Tisdale (Deborah Puette) and teenage clerk Mark Shawver (Daniel Montgomery) were shot and killed in a supermarket robbery. Sheriff Alan Starett (Paul Dillon) has felt guilt and anger ever since because he couldn’t prevent the crime. Grace’s husband, Doug (David Paluck), has moved on and remarried elementary school teacher Lisa (Ann Noble). Grace’s brother Lewie (Mark St. Amant), however, has fallen apart, spending his days drinking and his nights in abandoned buildings, a premature ghost haunting his dying town.
St. Amant is memorably fine as the broken Lewie, clinging to his brother-in-law Doug like a needy puppy and spending his nights talking with the dead. St. Amant’s perf always retains Lewie’s dignity, and his display of Lewie’s grief at Doug and Lisa’s departure is painfully real. Dillon gives a layered performance as the sheriff, hiding his feelings behind casually pugnacious behavior and dry wit, and his revelation late in the play of the character’s underlying anguish is raw and true.
Paluck does solid work as Doug, who’s sympathetic to Lewie’s situation but nevertheless intends to leave. As Lisa, a woman who has inherited tragedy via her marriage, Noble offers a perf that feels deeply inhabited, rich with meaningful looks and resonant with things not said. Puette brings charm and a slightly spooky sense of distance to Grace, and Bradley Fisher is amusing as the nosy and nervous bartender Bill.
Darin Singleton is fine as the mysterious stranger Dennis, and Daniel Montgomery displays an appropriately ghostly lack of affect as Mark.
Playwright Neveu maintains a low-key tone throughout the play, never veering into obvious melodrama, and this creates a very specific ambience, a sense of place and situation that deepens the impact of the story. Despite a somewhat ambiguous conclusion, the piece attains a melancholy elegance.
Director Dado uses every bit of the large stage effectively and excels particularly in the transitions between Lewie talking to the dead and his real situation, a sunny pool in memory jarringly becoming a dark empty house.
Ian Garrett’s multilevel rural town set is impressively wrought, encompassing a bar, a back porch, a high school locker room, a police station and a couple of abandoned homes. Leigh Allen’s lighting creates many moods with fluid grace, and Bob Rokos’ sound design is spare but evocative. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s costumes are all convincing, with Lewie’s dirty brown ensemble adding notably to the character as it suggests a man already almost buried by his loss.