A Hard Wall At High Speed: Powerful Play Hits Home
I don’t recall ever watching a play that had the audience glued to their seats after it ended, that had them turning around to strangers and discussing what they had just seen, unwilling to leave the theater because the experience was so powerful, they needed to discuss it with those who had shared the same. Such was the case on November 5, the second night of the world premiere of A Hard Wall at High Speed at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. I will not give away the essential plot because, for this play, it is important to go into the theater not knowing exactly what to expect. But this much I will share. The spectacularly realistic set designed by Stephen K. Dobay features the interior of a home, mostly a kitchen and living room, with vivid turquoise walls. The location is Florida, but it could be any home, in any suburb, anywhere. The space gives the feeling of air, of sky. We are fascinated by the details: a real kitchen sink and appliances, a bottle of pump soap, paper towels, a spice rack, a bulletin board, a dishwasher. Over the front door there is a wooden propeller. The living room is tidy and comfortable—it’s obvious that a woman’s touch has been added. However, something is off, the angles are askew.
“It shows us something fractured,” director May Adrales told me in an earlier interview.
As the action begins and we become drawn into the lives of a relatively happy family - a young-ish couple preparing for the birth of their first child; the father, Donnie, happily building his flight-school business with big dreams for the future; his brother, a guy in his thirties who doesn’t seem to have it together yet, living in the basement with his ditzy girlfriend and representing a bit of a nuisance to the happy couple - most things are as they should be, and a little bit of what one would rather they not be. But then a disaster occurs, and though at first we think this family should not be unduly affected, at least, not more than others, it turns out they are at the epicenter, and all blame turns on Donnie. From here we are on a journey with this family, and we begin to see how damaging blame can be, especially when it seems empty, a desire for a scapegoat without thought to how it will impact him and the ones he loves. Donnie’s wife, June, is down-to-earth loyal, but even she eventually gives in to the pressure of a society that needs to place blame somewhere, especially when it appears Donnie cannot rise above it. His brother, Trout, then becomes more than just an irritation, while Trout’s girlfriend, Marcy, seems to be the only one with a truly forgiving nature, and perhaps just a hint of an attraction for Donnie buried beneath the surface.
This brings me to the performances of these four actors, which are what really make this play crackle. Tom O’Keefe as Donnie personifies the average guy with all his hope and dreams. His buoyant love of life makes his ultimate decline into hopelessness even more palpable, raw, and desperate. Sarah Kate Jackson as June portrays the ever-optimistic, practical side of womanhood. And though the character of June almost loses faith in her husband, Jackson is able to draw on a level of inner purity that fuels the final redemption. Johnny Pruitt as Trout makes it seem as if the stage is literally his home. We don’t think of him as an actor at all. He is constantly alive and so comfortable with the dialogue that we forget it is dialogue. And finally, Ryan Templeton as Marcy is the one we can’t take our eyes off of. She’s gawky and gangly, yet oddly sexy too, the actress following every impulse, and making us love her, all the while wondering why.
Written by Ashlin Halfnight, this is a script that moves. We are gently pulled, at first, into the lives of these people, and then hurled headlong with them, as the ti- tle suggests, straight into a brick wall. But even as we feel ourselves hitting that wall, the momentum of the writing doesn’t stop. In the meantime, it seems as though the people on stage are speaking common words that any of us might say, while they somehow create a swirling pool of hurt and regret. I couldn’t help but be a little reminded of the plays of Sam Shepard.
Momentum cannot happen in theater, however, without the guiding hand of a strong and able director, and Adrales certainly is that. Though early on in the piece I was taken aback by the scene shifts, mostly because the music seemed reminiscent of a sitcom, it soon became apparent that she firmly holds the reins of the pace, the music building with the action, everything working together to give us the feeling of a freefall through space.
Finally, credit must be given to Astoria Performing Arts Center Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik for bringing this piece to the company. It is his vision, supported by Executive Director Taryn Sacramone and the rest of the APAC staff, which is allowing new works to thrive there. A Hard Wall at High Speed runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Saturdays at 2:00 pm through November 19. The reasonably priced tickets can be purchased at APACNY. Org.
As Associate Production Manager Jenny Herdman Lando advised me beforehand, “Bring a hankie.”
I was glad I did.