Tonight I went to a play “Alabama Baggage” in a small theater in Hollywood, called Theater Asylum. Looks like it might seat a hundred, small, intimate, grouped in a building with two or three other small theaters, sharing a solitary public mens room with a broken urinal, no parking, my GF and I spent half an hour driving round in ever widening circles before finding a spot perhaps two blocks from the theater. Luckily the rain that had been falling on and off all day had decided to let up long enough for us to walk past the three or four homeless sheltering in the entrances to closed businesses on the way to the theater.
Upon arrival we were greeted efficiently enough and once I had endured the inadequate toiletry, settled in to see a bit of what I had hoped would be avant garde performance in the play “Alabama Baggage” written by one Buddy Farmer. Directed by Paul Messenger. The play opens in and stays in one act at the cemetery of a small town in Kentucky, but it could have been anywhere. The staging is minimal, three tombstones in the back ground, a statue of an ominous angel, a tomb in the foreground, a small bench and some vague props indicating ‘back there somewhere off stage’. Some flowers are strewn around the tomb in the foreground, but it faces away from the audience, thus when the actors are facing the tomb they are also facing the audience.
First the widow of the deceased church Deacon and popular Rotarian Hal is seen bewailing the fate of her recently deceased husband. She has an irritatingly bad southern accent that is nothing like a Kentucky accent, more appropriate for revivals of Gone With the Wind. But she is soon off stage and her irritating voice with her. Next comes Lucas, a youngish man dressed as some kind of laborer, who proceeds to piss on the tomb of the dead man, but is interrupted by the only Black Sheriff in Kentucky, Ben or Gentle Ben as Lucas calls him. Ben proceeds to threaten to arrest Lucas for desecrating the grave of the recently dead but changes his mind when Lucas accuses the deceased of being a pedophile who abused him when he was a 12 year old. Soon we discover after much angst and manly banter that Ben also was abused by Uncle Hal as Lucas called him, some 22 years prior.
They go off stage to lurk and listen as the local judge who seems to own everything in town and the not so dead Hal show up, make a business transaction in which Hal is given money to leave town and the Judge gets Hal’s wife. Apparently the Judge has got wind of Hal’s proclivity for youngish boys while he was living in Alabama, that den of iniquity and is blackmailing Hal into leaving town and his wife in the hands of the judge.
They leave, the boys come back from the back stage, well not boys, they are thirty somethings who have anxiety over having been taken advantage by uncle Hal who saved Ben from drowning and got him fixed up with his career as Sheriff, even bought him a car. Lucas, who is the source of the Alabama rumors, was treated as a surrogate son by Hal, who taught him to drive and how to kiss among other things.
The two men fret and wish to god they had an opportunity to do in Hal, when Hal conveniently but inexplicably returns to the sight of his own grave and is discovered by the two men who proceed to berate Hal, wanting him to shoot himself and save them the trouble of murdering him. Hal falls down seemingly dead. They throw him into the grave which they had just dug up in efforts to confirm Hals death but can’t bring themselves to kill him. They agree to let him escape after breaking a few fingers but the wife returns and listens to them from behind some props, she then comes out and gets the sheriffs gun and shoots Hal dead. Lucas and Ben follow suit. And then go off on vacation.
I found the plot to be farcical, which I assume it was meant to be. Pedophiles are one of the last safe minority groups left to easily despise. There was very little attempt to explore Hal’s motive, other than to say his father abused him and he was perpetuating the family tradition. Apparently Lucas had the same feelings towards his sons but had restrained himself. This facile approach begs the question as to motivation, and offers no path to redemption other than death for Hal who otherwise seems to be a pillar of local society. The play is fraught with overwrought and unconvincing portrayals of offended middle age men, corrupt elderly men and an irritating but resolute wife who first mourns and then murders her beloved dead husband.
While entertaining in a slapstick sort of manner, this play was no education on the problem of pedophilia and although the solution was a crowd pleaser, it offered no real insight or solution or intellectually satisfying answers. The victims came off as wishy washy and unsympathetic, the evil Hal seemed more like a well meaning bumbler, the wife a shrill bitch and the Judge, just plain sleazy. None of them were particularly heroic or even sympathetic and I would call the play a failed effort to tackle an important subject and social problem. The solution offered, a variant on if thy hand offends thee cut it off, is sort of like the American civil war surgeons who sawed off limbs willy nilly to save the patient who often died from their efforts if not from infections. The patient is the society beset by perverts, terrorists and extremists of all persuasions. the solution offered in this case is, after some dithering, simply cut off the offending part of the social body, or in this case shoot Hal and be done with it. Kindness and perversity, in this case cannot be disentangled and to keep the disease from spreading, the rot, the cancer the gangrene, the offending body must be destroyed as the wife, so loving in the opening scene shows in the climatic concluding shot. The legal system represented by Ben joins in after civil society represented by Lucas has also. The solution as seen by this play is simply and direct, sex offenders should be executed, for the good of the whole. Although we have to wonder about Lucas who admitted to having lusty thoughts about his own children and Ben who admits to having shot a man in the back, were they equivocating because they two had become subject to the rot, was it only the efforts of the untainted wife, as murderess or executioner, that society is saved. Or is it too late for her also, after all she loved this man Hal, she let him near her daughter, did she kill out of guilt? The play doesn’t answer this, it stays two dimensional and leaves the audience with the satisfaction that the rot has been removed. Kindness and equivocation, are removed and a brave new world free of perversity and gray matter, is to be found after the well deserved vacations being taken by Ben and Lucas.
Ok, a rather facile review, my gut reaction was that the play was oversimplifying the issues. But perhaps there was enough ambiguity left for audience members to tease out such problems as, do you need to kill kindness, forgiveness and all those qualities that make human life bearable emotionally. The play does not make reference to the drone wars or 9/11 but certainly the solution applied in the play and in the society at large, kill the bastards, no trial, no wait, hang em’ from the nearest tree, or with the nearest drone or the nearest special forces unit, is tantamount to mob justice and equivalent to a slide into barbarism. The play does refer to the Catholic Church’s scandal of priests seducing young boys and girls with a line “He was a deacon not a priest” as Ben stated when Lucas accused Hal of abusing him. Interesting, perhaps more so than I had initially surmised. But the play has to be read in the context of current society, and unfortunately the play does not give voice to reason, so much as to pleas to emotion. And the dread of the unforgivable offense of corrupting youth. It doesn’t go into the corruption of youth by the advertising industry seducing children into obesity, promoting food products loaded with refined sugar, salt and fat. Or the perversity of a society bent on dominating the rest of the world through raw power although perhaps the gun that seemed to slip from hand to hand represented that brute force that is inherent in us all.
Question, is society on the brink, do we need to take drastic efforts to preserve what is left of an embattled and fragile civil society, is the radical surgery suggested in the play a solution that will work to preserve social coherence or will it merely serve to further the slide down the slope into the primordial soup? It is interesting that in the play boys being seduced by men could be equivocated with but girls being seduced by the same was something over the edge and thus for the sake of preserving womanhood, the woman takes the first shot. Some irony there.
So with second thoughts I am more lenient on the script and less so for the rather crude rendition of the subject. I think in better hands, perhaps a more sophisticated direction, it might have brought forward the social implications behind the drama that unfolded in Alabama Baggage.
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