|John Hartzell and Valerie Lynn Brett|
It plays out on a spare, effective set (designed by Sean Breault) that gives us the kitchen of a small suburban house and its immediate outdoors. Here we meet Cal, a mother attempting to pump milk for her newborn. It’s not working. The scene shifts to a bar (our only venture away from the house), where Tim, Cal’s husband, is trying to sell the specialty beer whose distributor he represents. It’s not working, despite his winning ways. “It’s magic, this beer,” he explains, touting the flavorings that he guarantees will make it attractive to women. “And girls hate beer,” he insists. “It smells like their dad.” The bar owner, played in a low-key cameo by Craig Patrick Browne, has only this to offer: “It tastes like beer.”
We’re back at the family’s new house in Sterling, Illinois, where they moved from Tim’s hometown of Chicago – specifically, the Bridgeport area, as working class as the south side can get. Life for Cal and Tim is a cycle of frustrations punctuated by the sound of their crying child. Into the turmoil comes Cal’s brother, Flynt, who has flown in from Missouri. Been flown in, that is, courtesy Cal, as a comfort, because Flynt’s wife has just died.
This already has thrown Tim into a rage, for reasons that seem as sound as they do absurd, and it’s part of the playwright’s genius to set many an emotional issue on that kind of edge. Beware the laughs, though – they make you more vulnerable to the effects of the frustration and rage that is sure to follow.
There are lengthy scenes between Cal and Flynt and between Flynt and Tim that send you on that roller-coaster, and a story that’s juggling issues of birth and death can find plenty of material to draw you in and then wrench you with a compelling surprise. Valerie Lynn Brett plays Cal, inhabiting the role with an enigmatic face that seems neutral at one moment and rage-filled the next without so much as a flicker flashing across. “How I’m supposed to love is broken,” she confesses, frustrated by the lack of connection she feels with her daughter: “My body doesn’t even know she’s here.” She has a monologue that unfolds from the taste of a cookie, a speech that seems to meander but with a compelling repetitiousness, building on the resonance of those repeated words.
As Tim, Michael Siktberg also shows us an emotional kaleidoscope. His hail-fellow-well-met manner is a practiced sales face; behind it lurks a young Willy Loman who’s ill-placed in suburbia but devoted to at least the idea of his wife and daughter. He has a befuddled charm that must work terrifically in comic roles, but which serves as the effective underpinning of his portrayal here. Tim’s father was a police force captain who came close to accidentally killing Tim’s mother while cleaning his service revolver before attending a decoration ceremony. Tim describes it in another effective Hoffman monologue, again with a powerful use of the echoes of language. Having hastily covered the gun’s damage, Tim’s father brings his family to the ceremony, and “him and me never talked about it again.” Which sums up an all-too-common dysfunctional dynamic.
John Hartzell’s Flynt is another study in emotional layering, although he’s a far more introverted character. His grief shows itself in seeming irrelevancies. His home is the outdoors, which claimed his wife when a river flooded over its banks. “Nature knows what to do,” he says at one point, “just like water knows where to go.” He treasures a photo of the ten-point buck he shot, yet he’ll rescue a deer that’s drowning. Hartzell speaks with a convincing backwoods drawl, but is as eloquent in his silences as he is in speech. It’s a tribute both to Hoffman and to the three lead actors that each has a distinctive voice while sharing an idiosyncratic language.
The production is skillfully directed by Stephen Nachamie, with sound design by Scott Stauffer that includes the precise placement of convincing effects, the natural sounds of an outdoor scene, and pre-show and scene-change minimalist music that developed throughout to heighten the story’s effect.
The tightly written script plays out over 85 intermission-free minutes, and there are no extraneous elements. It’s an audacious beginning for a new professional company, raising the bar about as high as it gets. The theater itself is a bright, welcoming space with artwork in the lobby chosen to complement the production, and it’s set in downtown New Paltz amidst an array of shops that offer whatever other elements of nourishment you may require. “Cal in Camo” will be presented Wednesdays through Sundays through November 4, 2018.
Cal in Camo
A play by William Francis Hoffman
Directed by Stephen Nachamie
Water Street Market, New Paltz, NY
19 October 2018