Red Barn Studio •1122 South 3rd St.
10/13-16, 20-23, 27-30 and 11/3-6
Shows: 8 p.m. or Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Between last week’s work by UNCW and this week’s production of “Yankee Tavern” by Steven Dietz at the Red Barn Studio, I am just in awe of Wilmington’s goldmine of talent. Dietz is a hardworking, producing playwright who has yet to have a Broadway smash to make him a household name like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. His writing, however, is without question on par with both—maybe an interesting modern hybrid of the two. In “Yankee Tavern,” like Miller, Dietz deals with the deep-rooted questions of the individual within society, personal and collective truths, and often painful collision these produce. Like Williams, he writes highly realistic dialogue that includes nuance and subtext, which hangs in the air with a heaviness that is almost visible.
Yankee Tavern is a dive in a basement of a condemned hotel in New York City. Adam (Rylan Morsbach), the barkeep, has inherited the watering hole from his deceased father. He and his beautiful fiancée, Janet (Isabel Heblich), are having the standard heated discussions about wedding plans, which mostly consist of him trying to find a way to make her happy and her not being pleased with the situation. The tavern’s longtime regular (who drinks for free) is Ray (Lee Lowrimore), a highly vocal conspiracy theorist. When he enters, he is on hold with a radio call-in show and carries on a dialogue with Adam, Janet, the operator and eventually the show’s host. It all ends with his promise to call in next week, with insight into Yoko Ono’s connection with the Bay of Pigs. It is hilarious and stunning in its complexity.
Ray is simultaneously the comic relief and great frustration of Adam and Janet’s world. How can someone so smart have not done a thing with his life? How can he devote time to researching and formulating these theories, yet never have even written a book with this knowledge? They can’t take him seriously, but they can’t dismiss him either—not only is he there, but he is quite literally the loudest voice in the room. Shouting long enough repeatedly makes ideas sound plausible—so is the basis of most propaganda, the repetition of the message.
Enter the mysterious stranger. He orders two Rolling Rocks, drinks one and lets the other sit. Palmer (Mike O’Neil) seems to take Ray seriously as he listens from the corner. Things begin to take a dark turn as Palmer’s inner knowledge of the events of 9/11 unfold, and the possibility that his theories might not be far-away ideas becomes all too frightening.
Director Dorothy Rankin doubles as the box office attendant at Red Barn. Though she was busy with all the last-minute details of the night, she was glowing with the anticipation of someone who has just spent days decorating an incredible wedding cake and is about to unveil it. Now I know why; she should be incredibly proud of this show and the work that she has coaxed together. Mike O’Neil in particular stands out. In real life, O’Neil is kind and gentle mannered. His transformation into the villain for this role was complete. “I know there’s a gun behind the bar,” he says. “You don’t need it; I’m not going to hurt you.” Once the audience hears those words, they know it’s bad going on worse. His cold, controlled delivery literally made my blood run cold. When he first walked onstage, I kept looking for that signature smile, but its absence was conspicuous and ominous. He doesn’t wave his arms and act crazy—a direct foil to Lowrimore’s portrayal of the crazy man in the room—and it’s far more frightening.
Lowrimore has nailed the good-hearted, mentally unstable, crazy man of whom many have met and even fear resides within us. The world continues to turn around Ray, and he swirls within his own little universe of Yankee Tavern, proving himself much more capable of running the bar in Adam’s absence than anyone had ever suspected.
“Here are the invoices for deliveries, the mail, and we sponsored a women’s soccer team!” he says proudly to Janet. Lowrimore makes it clear to Ray that the tavern is the center of his universe. He wants Ray’s theories only at arms length—ideas he never has to touch or encounter among the lives of his loved ones.
Heblich and Morsbach are a wonderful pairing. With her bright red hair and warm, loving personality, it is obvious that Janet really is the first ray of sunshine to cross the threshold of the Tavern in years. This is a very mature role for Morsbach; it has a lot of potential pitfalls and easy outs, like fondling or kissing Janet constantly or caving into an easy rage with Ray. Morsbach and Rankin have taken Adam into an adult world: His love for Janet is evident every time they look at each other from across the room. They carry on in a comfortable, settled relationship, done with undergrad studies and starting their real lives.
My mother used to say one could always identify people on first dates because they talked constantly. After they heard each other’s stories, though, sometimes it’s just nice to be quiet in the presence of love and trust. Janet and Adam are on that cusp: they love, and they almost trust. Morsbach in his interactions with Ray also beautifully channels every person saddled with a family member (Ray is definitely family) who is irritating but whose love runs deep. Ray could try the patience of a saint. Morsbach’s long fuse with Ray is extraordinary, so when he finally does blow up—over a true, deep wound —it is understandable and believable.
In act two Heblich’s personal journey would make Stella Adler proud. She uses all the nuance of body language to communicate clearly and obviously the purgatory that has descended upon her. Without hysterics but with a real fear of Palmer and the power he possesses, she falls into a darkness that is terrifyingly real in its simplicity.
Live theatre presents an opportunity to engage in a topic and art with an immediacy that film and television just cannot match. “Yankee Tavern,” the script and the cast, produce a compelling and thought-provoking evening that does just that.