“The best thing for the inside of a man,” Ronald Reagan once said, “is the outside of a horse.”
In this odd, affecting early Sarah Ruhl play, the outside of a horse provides an odd, affecting comfort to the inside of Mary Smith (Sarah Olmstead Thomas), whose marriage to Crick Thorndigger (Chris Dinolfo) – basically a selfish bastard with a taste for treacle – is a source of her joy and despair.
Mary – and let’s not paper this over – is dumber than a toaster. (“Christmas comes early this year,” she observes). She has been in love with (or has imagined herself in love with) Crick since the second grade. It was, she reveals gleefully to her friend Red (Alyssa Wilmoth), preordained and foreordained – because they shared the same birthday.
She is not blind to her lover’s faults. “You’re more of an heiress than me,” he whines, by way of trying to cadge her out of five hundred dollars.
“That’s true,” she shoots back. “Most people are more of an heiress than you. They—like—inherit money from their jobs. Like a paycheck.”
But soon he plays on her guilt – on her misguided belief in income equality, regardless of effort and skill – to snatch up her money, which he uses as an “investment” in a painting. And then, afterward: to secure her consent to marriage, her participation in various holiday celebrations, and, ultimately, her abandonment of her outside interests.
Her principal outside interest has been Red, who has managed to become a cowboy despite the fact that (a) she is a woman, and (b) she lives in Pittsburgh. “She can make horses fall asleep,” Mary explains to Crick. “She sings horse lullabies for a job. She gets paid for it.” Nice work if you can get it.
Mary and Crick are emotional eight-year-olds in adult bodies, and because they have no capacity for critical thinking their lives are awash in ambiguity. Their child is born a hermaphrodite, and the doctors – not Crick or Mary – decide which part to alter. Crick and Mary cannot agree on their child’s name, and so each calls their offspring by different names for years. Crick takes Mary to an art gallery, and decides he likes all of Mary’s favorite paintings – although it’s obvious that he doesn’t. And so on.
In this muddled sea, Red stands out as an island of stability. She knows how to do things, she knows why she does them, and she does them. She teaches Mary how to ride a horse, and she dances with her. There is a frisson of erotic tension between Red and Mary, never consummated, and never really expressed. Mary enjoys her time with Red, and it causes her to be consistently late in returning to Crick. This infuriates her husband, who is the center of his universe and expects to be the center of yours as well.
There is much in Late, a Cowboy Song that I don’t like. Mary and Crick are so surpassingly stupid that it is hard to get a rooting interest in either of them. There is no central dilemma driving the story forward, but only a vague sense of unease. Ruhl’s gaudy metaphors – Mary’s passion for clear consommé, Crick’s teary viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and his uncharacteristic love of art, Red’s cowboy songs – seem to float in the play’s ionosphere without connecting to each other or to the story line. Preposterous and unlikely events crop up – magical realism without the realism. The play seems to be a plea for tolerance, but I don’t know what we’re being asked to tolerate.
Late: A Cowboy Song
Closes January 19, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission
Monday, Wednesdays thru Sundays
Why did I like it so much, then? Part of it is the language. Ruhl may have been a novice playwright when she wrote Late (its first production was two years after she received her MFA), but she had been a poet before then, and her language is vivid and lyrical. Crick is certainly no poet, but Ruhl finds language for him to describe his passion for art which is both moving and profound. While maintaining Mary’s dimness throughout the production, Ruhl allows her sufficient language to describe the sadness and fear she doesn’t even know she has. And Ruhl gives the laconic Red lines of cowboy wisdom which startle and provoke us, even though we know that they are being uttered by a Pittsburgh woman cowboy.
Second reason: Rex Daugherty’s spot-on direction. He seems to have found the exact mix of comedy and tragedy that best enhances the play’s effect. All three actors are on the stage for most of the time, and Daugherty finds something for each of them to do; when an actor is not involved in dialogue she is unobtrusive but in character, so when it is her turn in the spotlight she moves into it naturally, and with grace. He uses Cory Ryan Frank’s excellent set fully, and to the advantage of the play. The ballet which Mary and Crick go through to show us the birth of their child is graceful, funny and touching.
Cinching reason: the performances. With this work, Alyssa Wilmoth establishes herself as a major Washington actor – the kind of performer whose appearance in a cast can serve as a stand-alone justification to see a play. Wilmoth’s cowboy drawl is pitch-perfect. Her character, by nature, has a limited range of emotional responses, but she uses every tool in the toolbox – voice, posture, expression, movement – to make her emotional state specific, real, and honest. Also, she applies an astonishingly powerful and beautiful singing voice to the complicated music Daugherty and co-composer Kinsey Charles have crafted to go along with Ruhl’s cowboy poetry.
Thomas and Dinolfo also acquit themselves well in difficult roles. Thomas, who has an extensive background in clowning and has trained at Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company (remember Hell Meets Henry Halfway at Woolly?) uses gesture and body language – in particular, her face – to give Mary an articulation which Ruhl has not put in her dialogue. Every single review of other productions of this play that I’ve read has been critical of the actor – no matter who he is – who plays Crick, from which I conclude that it’s almost impossible to play him convincingly. Dinolfo does about as well as I can imagine anybody doing. He gives us a mostly believable, though preposterous, character. There are times when he goes over the top. At such times, I remember Jessica Rabbit from the old Bob Zemeckis movie. “I’m not bad,” she explained. “I’m just drawn that way.”
Late: a Cowboy Song by Sarah Ruhl . directed by Rex Daugherty, who co-wrote the music with Kinsey Charles. Featuring Chris Dinolfo, Sara Olmsted Thomas, and Alyssa Wilmoth. Scenic design: Cory Ryan Frank, assisted by Jake Ewonus . Lighting design: Cory Ryan Frank, assisted by Robert Brown. Costume design: Lynly Saunders . Sound design: Brandon Roe. Stage manager: Julie Meyer . Produced by No Rules Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.