The Road

By David Earl Jones
Directed by Stephen LaBollita
Theatre At Large
Boston Center for the Arts Through September 28th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Theatre At Large is a welcome addition to the short roster of small companies in the Boston area devoted to exciting new--or newish -- work by little-known writers. The company's first production was a group of one acts, Frederick Stoppel's "Package Deal" That impressive debut is followed up by the area premiere of a prize- winning 1986 script by Denver playwright David Earl Jones. "The Road" is the chronicle of a couple of years in the murderous odyssey of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, two real-life serial killers responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. (Also the subject of the award-winning film "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") Sensitive direction by Stephen LaBollita, sharp tech work, and a full complement of good actors make a strong case for a script that avoids sensationalism as it explores the banality of evil. The new company has done its homework, delving into the dark underside of the American heartland, checking their accents and insights against the case-study "facts" -- with LaBollita going so far as to share the results of his research by mounting an exhibit of "murderobilia" in the lobby, complete with neatly written but awkwardly expressed letters from death row.

Chris Mannting's set for "The Road" is a beat-up silvery white car that the team used as they criss- crossed the country in search of odd jobs and likely victims. The Black Box theatre is a small space: the full size car and the grunge accessories look right at home, but you can't help wondering -- how in the world did Mannting get that car in here? And how in the world is LaBollita going to block the show in an interesting and expressive way with that immovable metal monster taking up most of the stage? The answer is, artfully. The monster turns out to be on a platform, and between each scene it slides into a new position. Characters sit in it: they also sit on it, and lean against it, and circle round it. Steve Weiss's lighting effects and Ben Emerson's sound design create motion and traffic and the feel of long boring nights of driving on secondary highways, the anonymous roads that wind from backwater to backwater.

Neither author Jones nor the At Large company can be accused of glamorizing murder. There is no plot to speak of in "The Road": the exhibit in the lobby and the director's notes make it clear that the central characters will murder some or most of the other characters whose names appear in the program, and that eventually the murderers will wind up in jail. But there is no larger pattern to fulfill, no set of clues to follow, no game of wits with the law. Henry and Ottis are evil, but not in the opaque or glittering fashion that the bad guys in an action film are evil. They aren't bigger than life, they are smaller: the snips and snails and puppydog tails that little boys are made of turned serious, never having been domesticated by kindness.

Rick Parkis taciturn and sullen as the glass-eyed scar-faced Henry. Park comes on as a chilling parody of the strong silent Western hero, impervious to fear, pain, or pleasure. Randy Farias' Ottis is a study in contrast: volatile to the point of hysteria, with a maniacal giggle and a fierce blood lust. Farias' roly-poly Ottis has a cuddly side to him that brings out a protective urge in Henry. Sometimes their partnership resembles a marriage -- and this is underscored in the second act when Ottis dolls up in a purple satin dress and a curly blonde wig, presumably acquired from an offstage victim. Sometimes they seem like father and son. Sometimes Henry seems to treat Ottis as if he were a pet Doberman with a vicious bite and a few amusing tricks, more trouble than he's worth but too much part of the family to put down quite yet.

However extreme their behavior, Henry and Ottis remain recognizably human, creatures like ourselves who react to frustration, humiliation and rejection with aggression and rage. But although we are given enough background to be able to deduce the childhood sources of their pain, we are not invited to empathize with the killers. They meet a succession of people who represent some aspect of American life, and in each scene they are like a couple of sticks of dynamite with a lit fuse. We wait to see if they will explode.

Mary Kearney plays brattish Becki, the 15 year old niece of Ottis' that the pair spring from a juvenile detention center. Becki comes along for what she expects will be a joyride and we are pretty certain will be a quick trip to the graveyard. But just then Henry meets the saintly Reverend (Frank Ridley) who offers him a job and a place to stay. In spite of the misgivings of his wife (Dorothy Brodesser), the Reverend befriends Henry and tries to save his soul, a soul which the Reverend senses is troubled and black with sin. Henry responds, for a time, working hard while Becki pretends to be married to him. Jones' Reverend is only a sketch, and could be played as a Bible-thumping fraud or a fool. Ridley and Brodesser portray real goodness. Henry encounters goodness too late for it to change him much, but the possiblity has been raised. However, Becki steps out of line and becomes the predictable corpse, and Henry tells the Reverend that he's going back on the road to "Do what I do best".

Michael Hill plays a suspicious sheriff who might put an end to the crime spree, but is deflected when Henry "sir"'s him through a submission ritual and into mutual admiration of the NRA and gun collecting. The last victim (Bronwyn Sims), the only one killed on stage, is a cartoonish yuppie, stranded when her BMW breaks down. This detailed death is truly harrowing, partly because of the quality of the acting, but also because it is set up so that we see it coming and have plenty of time to become aware of the complicated set of emotions it evokes.

The play lingers as a set of questions: How many more killers are out there? How likely is it that I, or someone I love, will run into one of them? Lots of people have rotten mothers. Lots of people have insecure egos and underdeveloped consciences. A certain percentage of these damaged folk may want to strike out at acquaintances and strangers, and even kill. But what does it say about our society that a pair of not very bright drifters -- one of them at least pretty visibly weird, even if not to the casual eye an obvious pyromaniacal cross-dressing cannibal --- can kill again and again and again and not get caught?

First, I suppose, "The Road" is a lesson about rootlessness. Although Henry and Ottis held down sporadic day jobs to support their --habit?---hobby?-- collection? -- living out of their Pinto made it possible for the two of them to get away with murder. To be on the road means freedom, irresponsibility, power and pleasure -- if you doubt that, check out any of the hundreds of automobile ads on television. Ottis says: "We're sure lucky, aren't we? We can go where we want, do what we want!" Well, isn't that the American dream? The difference between Ottis and the happy consumer in the ads is that what Ottis wants to consume is other people.

The scariest part of "The Road", finally, is how ordinary a couple of lives centered on murder can seem. After all, isn't murder entertainment? Gunfire and speeding cars the antidote to boredom? Murder is the plot of choice; where the stakes are as high as stakes can get. A series hero knocks off a villain or two a week, and there are dozens of series, hundreds of corpses in a kid's living room, imprinting their images on his growing brain ----