Pop culture has a mixed track record when it comes to depicting the hard-knock lives of American industrial townies. For every scathing Silkwood there's a silly "Laverne & Shirley," a sappy An Officer and a Gentleman and a just plain stupid "Allentown." That goes for the song and the music video.
This makes Beaver Falls -- written by Vermont playwright Gary Moore and currently being staged by Lost Nation Theater -- all the more refreshing. But the play is no anti-capitalist scree. It's a story -- and a compelling one.
In its telling, Beaver Falls conjures a more poignant portrait of factory-town life than any number of productions like Norma Rae or Flashdance. What's more, the simplicity of the play contrasts intriguingly with the complex lives of its characters. In fact, there's only one actor -- LNT co-artistic director Kim Bent -- in the whole show. He narrates this verse poem in 13 scenes set to the live musical accompaniment of keyboardist Fred Wilber.
The story begins in 1960, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a steel town hard by the banks of the Beaver River. There's Sherry, a baton-twirling local gal; Lanny, her football-tossing high school sweetheart; and Slim, a mysterious, quick-tempered pool shark. When Sherry becomes the teenage mother of Lanny's son, his heavy drinking begins, along with his domestic abuse.
One night, Sherry makes her Grey-hound escape and begins a new life near Philadelphia. She supports herself and her son cleaning a pool hall, earning table time to improve her own game. Soon she's shooting pool for money, setting in motion events that could reunite her with the men in her life -- one of whom she doesn't even know about yet.
Projected black-and-white photographs of smokestacks and scene titles establish the play's time and place. A haze of smoke drifts across the stage throughout the performance -- a hint of sooty town air and the barrooms where so much of the action takes place.
Even without these spare production elements, however, this lean work would likely compel interest from the opening lines to the last beat. The story comes to vivid life through language -- inventive rhyming and deft descriptions that evoke the volatility and entropy of life on the margins. Moore, a professor and dean at Montpelier's Woodbury College, deserves major "props" from the slam-poetry and hip-hop crowd for his lyrical stylings, which seem drawn from jazz poetry:
And by the time trees were black above the rusty snow
Lanny'd lost his job
and guys he bullied in school drove by and cheered
as he staggered, mutterin', in the street- lights' glow.
And when families in Fords passed the sorry show
Mom would turn away, but Dad would say to little Billy:
"See, that's the kind of thing that can happen to you
if you don't do what you're supposed to do."
While the narrative is linear and well- plotted, Beaver Falls is also a mood piece. Wilber's synthesizer gives Bent's narration a dark edge, musically tracking the actor's shifts in tone to create a unified whole. Bent's swaggering and stumbling suggest a body being knocked around, like a billiard ball, by all that life throws out.
"Made in U.S.A." may not mean the same thing it once did, and today a town like Beaver Falls might be a desolate place indeed. But in Moore's play, the American Dream does not go down without a fight.
The American Dream -- in particular, that old saw about manifest destiny -- figures prominently in Gunslinger, sharing the bill with Beaver Falls in the current run. Gunslinger is also a Kim Bent solo piece with musical accompaniment. This time, he's backed by co-artistic director Kathleen Keenan on guitars, harmonica and a variety of percussion instruments. Keenan and Bent adapted this poem by Ed Dorn back in the early '80s, and it has since become a signature piece for the company.
To say what the play is about, at least after one performance, is a challenge -- perhaps by design. Dorn, who died of cancer in 1999, is known for producing multi-layered verse in a postmodern vein, and Gunslinger has been described as an examination both of the idealized Amer-ican West and of humanity's place in the big, wide world.
Bent's Wild West costume, Keenan's guitar strumming and a wooden cactus cutout indeed suggest a ride on the range, but the text explores much more philosophical frontiers. There's a simulated saloon brawl and some talk of heading out to Las Vegas. But Bent's Gunslinger -- one of several roles he plays -- wrangles more often with such heady concepts as the nature of mortality, identity and which is more fundamental, time or space.
Gunslinger is a postmodern play in the sense that it makes frequent reference to other texts concerned with the composition of the universe. German philosopher Martin Heidegger's name crops up, as does that of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Gunslinger is basically "Gun-smoke" for the post-doctorate crowd.
While a glossary in the program explains some of the allusions, ideas still whiz by like bullets in a shootout. The language is briskly paced, ricocheting from the Gunslinger to the narrator to the bordello madam to a talking horse. Keenan's musical accompaniment, though skillful, sometimes makes the narrative more difficult to follow.
Yet those moments when the play makes most sense to the uninitiated provide a good many laughs. As he riffs gleefully on the meaning of life, Bent tosses his body around the stage like a lariat, striking classic cowboy poses on Keenan's musical cues.
If a touch of mental saddle soreness lingers when the sun sets on Gunslinger, the play is still kind of a hoot. Its pairing with Beaver Falls makes for an enjoyable evening exploring the frontiers of what theater is, and can be.