There’s not much else in New York that looks and talks like “Sweet Storm.” Debuting playwright Scott Hudson’s tiny, tight two-hander feels like nothing so much as a staged Flannery O’Connor short story, with the play’s deeply religious newlyweds trying to iron out marriage’s inconveniences in a treehouse somewhere in central Florida. The script is remarkably controlled without feeling slick, and Jamie Dunn and Eric T. Miller give refreshing, uncynical perfs as a young couple troubled as much by love as by suffering. Padraic Lillis directs the subdued action to a T.
Set in 1960, the play is a little fraught with symbolism (the characters’ given names are Ruth and Boaz), but there’s a basic kindness to their interactions that keeps things more interesting than any loud emotional violence could. It’s a production that forces you to sit quietly and listen attentively, helped by designer Lea Umberger’s lovely, unobtrusive settings.
Bo kicks things off by carrying Ruthie up the ladder into the treehouse, plopping her down on the bed, and announcing that this, their honeymoon hotel, is his first surprise of the evening. Ruthie doesn’t move. After a minute or two, we figure out that she’s lost the use of her legs; how, we never know for sure, but polio seems likely given the period. Almost the first moment Hudson illustrates for us is one of uncomfortable intimacy: Ruthie needs a toilet and Bo helps her get onto and up from the bedpan he has stashed away under the bed.
It’s hard to say whether this is a good thing to see right away as an audience member; it’s certainly a textured interaction, with all the attendant embarrassment and helplessness and affection the couple clearly are feeling for each other, but it’s also a little nervous-making. Should we really be watching this?
While the two try to figure out how to take in the huge fact that they’re married now, we learn that Bo is a preacher, who keeps feeling “called” to various congregations around the state. He’s sure he’s found a permanent roost this time, though — a field given to him by an old drunk who exhorted Bo to build a church and a house on the property, and then expired a few days after the gift.
This guy was not the most reliable interpreter of the Lord’s will: “That man has had enough things laid on his heart by the Lord, you’d think he’d have died of a squashed heart instead of a rotten liver,” Ruthie observes. Hudson overdoes it on the dialect here and there — something without cost isn’t just free, it’s “right plumb free.”
But there’s a much more important local detail that Hudson has gotten exactly right: In little communities like the one the characters in “Sweet Storm” describe, there are people with a lot to be angry about and a God to be angry at. Ruthie, the more worldly of the two, has about had it with the Lord, who allows her to be confined to a wheelchair, and Bo’s retreats into prayer don’t always seem to get immediate answers.
Bo comes from that great Southern preaching tradition that takes most of its cues from passing carnival barkers, and the play gets a lot of mileage out of his total submission to a soft-spoken woman who needs his help to go to the bathroom. If their marriage survives the hurricane that seems to be blowing outside, they’ll probably live happily ever after.
Hudson, an actor with co-producer LAByrinth Theater Company, has set himself a difficult task with the two-character, single-scene drama, and he’s acquitted himself admirably. The play doesn’t shine, but it frequently sparkles, and the character arcs are well-reasoned and subtle. “Sweet Storm” is utterly strange and unexpected, but it also feels reassuringly solid.