The words “trestle” and “creek” make me think “American rural trouble.” Ambrose Bierce’s haunting, surprise-ending Civil War story, often anthologized in literature textbooks, jumps to mind: “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” More recently there is “The Body” by Stephen King, turned into the 1986 movie “Stand By Me.”
Naomi Wallace picks up on my associations with her 2000 play “Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” set in a small Midwestern industrial town during the Great Depression of the 1930s. To the grim economic woes, she adds teenagers playing the game of dare to establish power and identity.
The play, opening Friday, tells 'the story of two young people growing up in the American Midwest and searching for a future in what seemed like a hopeless time,' director Saskia Bakker said.
What adult has not been involved in such, or at the very least witnessed it? Audience understanding can be readily assumed. To me this conflict is the strongest in the play. And because of flashbacks in the structure there is a mystery to be solved — what actually did happen at Pope Lick?
Katarina Blakeslee as 17-year-old Pace Creagan and Gabriel Halstead-Alvarez as “almost 16-” year-old Dalton Chance match each other for excellence. They are a successful, in-tune duet indeed — physically well cast and having rapid and subtle responses to each other.
Pace is the powerful one. She knows it; she exercises that power. She is bold. She is a sexual tease and more. She graphically describes the power of steam locomotives. She poses rhetorical questions to Dalton that she confidently answers. One such that foreshadows impending doom is, “The only way to love someone is to kill them.” She uses bleak metaphor for their dead-end life: “We’re potatoes left in the dark, roots reaching up for the light.”
Dalton’s face and body language are an open book to his goodness, sweetness, eagerness to please, and desire to achieve manhood with those qualities intact. Halstead-Alvarez projects a very likable young man.
There are direct references to the 1930s such as layoffs, firings, strikes, the WPA and President Roosevelt. One day, 52 men are turned down to work at the local foundry.
The playwright also uses symbols to convey the toughness of the times for working-class Americans. Dalton’s unemployed dad makes shadow animals on the walls and tosses plates about. He knows his value as a human being from his mother, who told him at an early age that a man was what he did. David Heckman sympathetically portrays the broken man who has come to accept himself as “nothing ... nothing.”
His wife, played by Christine des Garennes, is willing to take a job with chemical dangers and low pay. Though disappointed in him, she does not lose her love for her husband.
For me, the play less effectively develops the relationships between Dalton’s parents and his with each of them separately. Some of the dialogue, especially about Pace, cut glass, and things worth knowing seems overwrought or too long. Likewise is the story of the fortunate man with a job, the town jailer, about his son who had been killed on the railroad trestle. Kevin Wickart, however, gives interesting vitality to his portrayal of an “official” commentator on the complexities of time and place.
Director Saskia Baker has chosen a simple but eloquent stage set. Action is on a black aisle between two banks of audience seats. The aisle is bookended by floor-to-ceiling trestle trusses, which create a feeling of height and space. A few props suggest the interior of the Chance household when needed. A ragged American flag on the wall underscores the protest, “My country loves me; that’s why it’s killing my father.”