Spectators’ reaction to “Where the Great Ones Run” by Mark Roberts, of TV’s “Mike and Molly,” will hinge on how high or low they set their expectations. This tiny (80 minutes), condescension-free peek into the lives of Midwestern dreamers is pleasant but weightless: Horton Foote without the character density; Preston Jones minus a social critique.
The reliable Rogue Machine doesn’t stint in the production department. Keith Mitchell’s detailed truck-stop diner, complete down to the last catsup bottle, stands against a giant curved cyc of Cinerama proportions on which appear Adam Flemming’s eye-popping avant-garde images of plains vistas and starry skies.
Jeremy Pivnick teases out subtle expressionistic touches within the harsh cafe lighting, as jukebox tunes from bluesy local combo the Far West plunk us right down on Highway 60 waiting to be served a cuppa joe.
Yet visual and aural grandeur seems overdone, considering the wispy narrative in which country music star Sonny Burl (Jeff Kober) revisits the old homestead. He’s one of those classic burnt-out cases (think “Crazy Heart”) whose success came at the price of alienating long-suffering ex (Holly Fulger) and resentful daughter (Lily Holleman).
Behind the grill is Sonny’s wigged-out brother Buddy (Mark St. Amant), not yet ready to lay claim to that AA 90-day sobriety chip. There follows a lot of talk about everyone’s regrets, most of it enjoyable if not especially incisive or memorable.
As patrons come and go, promising subplots — a suicide’s parents; an aspiring tunesmith; a local hoodlum turned Hollywood hopeful — are no sooner introduced than frustratingly dropped, as if script pages had gone missing. Texture is everything in a slice-of-life play like this one, and Roberts has sliced the life way too thin.
And helmer Mark L. Taylor could do more to keep the joint’s physical life in perpetual motion. The most physically engaged thesps come off best: Jennifer Pollono’s waitress Kylie, achingly exuding both need and the life force; Kober, believable as the remnants of a one-time headliner; and the wonderful St. Amant, all flailing limbs and psychic pain.
Garrulous geezer Tucker Smallwood gives Buddy a delightfully salty talking-to as he rips into self-absorbed square dancers (“Promenade my ass”) and announces the evening’s take on life: “You squeeze about a shot glass full of grins out of the whole deal and the rest of it is just despair.”
But it gets annoying when such a vital personality is reduced to muttering irrelevant quotes from the local paper (“Supercharged turbo funnycars!”), constantly grabbing our focus without payoff.