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Things of Dry Hours
Wallace's intense, emphatically poetic drama is set in 1932 in Birmingham, Alabama during the depth of the Great Depression. The play revolves around three people, a black father and daughter and a white man who intrudes fatefully in their life. During this period in American history (a subject close to Wallace's heart), Communism found a receptive territory among unemployed, poverty stricken Americans. Social disorder was particularly encouraged among the Black American Southern communities where many were recruited as an activist force for liberation and as a new hope for the working class. The playwright uses this incendiary landscape to weave a story as much embraced by metaphors, symbols and metaphysical happenings as it is cloaked in a grim reality.
Wallace, whose The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek and One Flea Spare stand out for their fertile word-play and use of historical settings, has a predominantly poetic voice. If in the case of Things of Dry Hours the text often sounds like a struggle between abstracted naturalism and artistic narcissism, perhaps that is a compliment. However, the result can be a cause for tedium.
It takes only a short time to realize that Tice Hogan (Delroy Lindo), the sturdy, strong and vital figure who appears to have leaped from a moving train, is really a ghost. Following his opening monologue, in which his dead self considers his fear of "the knock on the door," the nature of apples and friendship, he segues into the man he was.
Indeed, a knock on the door could mean the police, the Klan or in this instance, Corbin Teel (Garret Dillahunt) a fugitive who believes he has killed a foreman in a factory. Corbin claims that he was told that he could depend on Tice to hide him until it was safe for him to leave. It is an uneasy situation for the middle-aged Corbin, whose life revolves around the words in two books — the Bible and the Manifesto of the Communist Party. A literate, if impoverished out-of-work widower, Tice preaches the Lord's words from a pulpit in Sunday school even as he preaches Karl Marx on a soap box in the park. Although he is obsessed with reading and in contemplating whether human nature can be changed, Tice remains suspicious and wary of Corbin.
Tice's resolve to not be involved with women is replaced by his devotion to his widowed daughter Kali (Roslyn Ruff), who works as a laundress for a wealthy family. Although Cali, has similarly sworn off men in the light of her unhappy marriage, she is notably energized when she steps into the odd mate-less shoe collection she has usurped from that family. The extended presence of the illiterate Corbin, who claims he wants to be trained by Tice as a Communist activist, presents a challenge to them. Perhaps he is more than that to Cali, who begins to feel the beginnings of a sexual tension growing between her and Corbin.
A triple threat as a playwright, actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson is here wearing only his director's hat. He works wonders with the lugubrious and occasionally funny text for optimum effects. A scene in which the white sheets on Cali's bed rise and float around the room (possibly symbolic of the Klan) to the strains of Rachmaninoff is effectively eerie. Much of the play's mood is entrusted to lighting designer Marcus Doshi, whose added atmospherics add considerably to Richard Hoover's simple but effective set design.
Lindo, who was Tony-nominated for his role as Herald Loomis in the original Broadway production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, gets Tice's message out loudly, clearly and with an impassioned conviction that keeps the play steady on its course. Ruff, another alum of August Wilson (the Signature Theatre revival of Seven Guitars), seethes with suppressed fire and surface ice as the emotionally confused Kali. To Dillahunt's credit, he keeps us guessing, as he should, with Corbin's on-again off-again displays of lust and loyalty. There is no guess work regarding Wallace's theme: that try as we might we can't change human nature. But, neither can we change the way a poet like Wallace is disposed to embrace dramatic literature.