Every playwright who has ever put pen to paper (or finger to computer key) has wanted in some way to encapsulate the mystifying contradictions of the human experience in these United States: love, rage, hope, despair, compassion, betrayal, etc. This is a noble and just calling, and we who observe their works are, generally, the better for it.
Trouble is, by trying to do everything in a single script, many playwrights succeed in doing nothing much at all. American Falls by Miki Johnson, now at Cleveland Public Theatre (and seen by this reviewer at a preview performance), lands where most of these highly ambitious plays end up—in the mushy middle ground between memorable and forgetable.
There are seven adult characters on stage (and one young boy, played by Anthony Sevier, who only appears briefly), and they have stories to tell about their lives. They are inhabitants of the eponymous town, a name for both the play and the town that is an almost-too-perfect summation of the theme at hand. The actors remain onstage for the duration of the 90-minute show, but they rarely interact with each other as they occupy little silos of light deftly designed by Jakyung Seo.
On the plus side, playwright Johnson and director Raymond Bobgan craft two really extraordinary characters, embodied in a couple riveting performances. Samantha is a worn-out woman who has boozed and fucked her way through life but, you know, not in a good way. As she says, “None of my kids turned out,” comparing them to failed Easter eggs. Despite almost Kabuki-level dollops of aging makeup, Chris Seibert is darkly comical and compelling as Samantha, mastering a raspy Marlboro growl and a defeated mien that feels like a festering, pulsing bruise on a tired soul.
Equally attention-getting is Adam Seeholzer as Samuel, a man who is so distraught by recent events that he turns himself inside out and into a new person. Seeholzer beautifully underplays this role, maintaining a steadily dark through-line that feels weirdly lyrical.
There are two other major roles that come across with varying degrees of success. Darius Stubbs plays the American Indian, Billy Mound of Clouds, and garners some of the biggest laughs as he discusses his job at Payless Shoe Store and his ability to intuit the future through his discount kicks. Stubbs lands these humorous asides with quiet style, but it’s hard to get hold of what Billy’s mindset really is.
This may be a problem with the script, since Johnson also underwrites the role of Lisa, who is dead after having committed suicide. The captivating acting talent of Faye Hargate is largely wasted in this character, since Lisa is called upon to deliver monotone, “Our Town-lite” faux-philosophical commentaries from the afterlife, without fully coming to grips with her actual life.
Three other characters, played by P.J. McCready, Ryan Edlinger and Dionne D. Atchison have shorter stories to tell as they gather in a bar. But none of these lives gain any traction and feel like an unnecessary digression from the four main characters. Sure, there are interconnections, but they are a bit faint and flimsy as portrayed here.
In this production, director Bobgan hews closely to the script, without his trademark layerings of movement and sound. And that is a wise choice, since Johnson is a playwright who manipulates words with panache. But a clearer focus on the really interesting characters would make American Falls a more satisfying journey.
Through December 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.