Fully 17 players, count ’em, remain on stage for the entire two hours and 20 minutes of Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers of Eldritch. During
this Syracuse University Drama Department production, they stand, sit
and sprawl on 11 different platforms, representing simultaneous
households, courtrooms and other venues. Dressed in period duds by
Lauren Levesque, they look like creatures from a Thomas Hart Benton
pastoral, and speak consistently in Ozark dialect, as coached by Joe
Alberti. The time is 1953, and there’s been a murder in the mined-out
coal village of Eldritch deep in the Bible Belt. There is much
rumination about the murder trial and guilt in general, but not until
the last five minutes, despite some forthright hinting, are we sure
just what happened.
Wilson (Talley’s Folly, Burn This) was a 29-year-old whippersnapper when he opened Eldritch
in 1966. He was in angry flight from his narrow-minded Missouri
hometown of Lebanon (pop. 12,000), and warmly in the embrace of
then-modernist theater, drawing on innovations of Bertolt Brecht, Jean
Genet and Eugene Ionesco. Wilson tips his hand in the opening scene
when the words of an angry judge are repeated, as if the action is to
begin all over again within minutes of the curtain. Characters
described as dead are still seen walking and talking as chronology
flies out the window.
On different platforms characters follow
different trajectories. Dialogue from one scene overlaps with another
or clusters into choral recitation. Sometimes only two characters are
speaking while others are caught in a freeze-frame pose indicating
dreaming. This is how we learn that prudish Evelyn Jackson (Danielle
von Gal) secretly lusts after a neighboring husband, Peck Johnson (Eric
Gossip girls: Cast members of The Rimers of Eldritch make their own judgments in this SU Drama production. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
For all its mid-1960s trendiness, Eldritch is
well rooted in American portrayals of village life. Evelyn’s taboo
longings could well have stepped out of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The tendency for choral speaking evokes the much gentler world of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. And the entire play feels like an alienated version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which Wilson surely studied.
Both plays feature despised outcasts. In Our Town it’s the drunken organist Simon Stimson, later a suicide. In Eldritch
it is dark, limping Skelly Mannor (Kristian Rodriguez), accused by
village toughs of having sex with goats. At their plays’ premieres,
both Wilder and Wilson were closet homosexuals, a theme never broached
in either work. Wilson now waves the rainbow banner proudly.
A few moments of preparation before
going to the theater will help unsettle some of the play’s calculated
ambiguities, especially in the first act. The word eldritch, for starters, is an adjective that means “weird, ghostly, unnatural; hideous,” in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Not as obscure as it sounds, it appears often in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Rimers, on the other hand, is a pun. It is at once an archaic spelling of rhymer,
a person who makes rhymes or perhaps speaks in choral poetry. And it is
also a neologism for someone who makes or induces rime frost, or, by
implication, a speaker with a cold heart. This second meaning is
alluded to in the play’s dialogue.
Director Gerardine Clark, the woman who gave young Vera Farmiga her first triumph as Arkadina in The Seagull and brought Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia to life, always relishes a challenge. Perhaps because of the demands Eldritch
puts on an audience and the size of the cast, only a college company
would produce it these days. Certainly, student actors would cheer for
so many opportunities. But no college stage director would attempt such
a daunting, mercurial item as Eldritch without having the troops ready to go in.
Dark-browed Kristian Rodriguez must have been cast first. Outstanding as Big Daddy in last year’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rodriguez
here as scapegoat Skelly delivers the longest, weightiest monologue
early in the second act, which actually explains everything, as we will
come to understand. He shouts, “People don’t care! They don’t see! What
they want to think they think!”
Some other early decisions must have
included 90-pound sophomore Tara Windley, who makes us believe she is
Skelly’s opposite number. Windley plays Eva Jackson, a pale 14-year-old
blonde cripple, going on long, soulful walks in the forest with
brooding, taciturn Robert Conklin (Patrick Murney), who in the
garrulous village reveals the least about what’s on his mind.
Key also is Eva’s attractive mother,
Evelyn, who shouts her Puritanism but whom we know to be a hypocrite.
Danielle von Gal, now blonde but a brunette for last year’s Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, gives her a steeliness with barely perceptible fissures.
The only double casting is given to
Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm as both the judge and preacher, clearly the
playwright’s choice and not an act of economy. Despite his hellfire
rhetoric, more as the preacher, excoriating the “the laxity with which
we meet the obligations of our Christian lives; the blindness from
which we allowed evil in our lives,” actor and director refrain from an
Elmer Gantry-ish American gothic. More in keeping with our own times,
he exudes the slick confidence of one of those TV mega-church salesmen
that pull in thousands at a time. There’s no mistaking Wilson’s
invective as Michael M. Nardulli’s scenic design includes a large heavy
cross that looms over all the action at a slanting angle.
Then again, Eldritch’s secular
forces are equally malign. Downstage we are often diverted by the
gossiping Greek chorus of Martha (Megan Dobbertin) and Wilma (Sara
Gorman), rocking gleefully as they dissect the many failures of the
villagers. “Ours is not to judge,” purrs Martha in judgment. A favorite
object of their attention is the red-haired barkeeper Cora Graves (Liz
Tancredi), who makes no trouble except for her taking the morally
ambiguous and much younger Walter (Brad Koed) as a “helper.” At the
first act’s curtain, most of the village is cheering the progress of
the trial, and only Cora is weeping. When Eldritch was filmed as a PBS production in 1974, The Golden Girls’ Rue McClanahan turned Cora into the virtual lead.
Notable also in the large cast is Amy
Shapiro as the confused defendant Nelly, and Alanna Rogers as a
discontented teenager determined to break out.
Making extraordinary contributions in
this Byzantine production are sound designer David Huber, with scads of
mood-defining period music from unseen radios, and lighting designer
Christine E. Bernat, who contributes separate shadings for each
platform, sometimes allowing a character in the midst of action to
disappear in shadow.
The Rimers of Eldritch was an off-Broadway landmark in its day. In this SU Drama production it still delivers plenty of bite.
This production runs through Sunday, Nov. 23. See Times Table for information.