Friday, March 6, 2015

Chagrin Falls

Play #49 - Chagrin Falls by Mia McCullough

This is a thoughtful, melancholy piece that McCullough wrote because she was interested in looking at the people who do the things that are necessary but unpleasant in our society: people who slaughter animals for food, work in prisons, or serve in the military. The play takes place in the fictional town of Chagrin Falls, OK, which is home to one of the most active cattle slaughterhouses in the country as well as a death row prison. The bulk of the action takes place in the bar of one of the local inns, owned and run by Irene. The regular customers that we meet are Riley, who just retired after thirty years at the slaughterhouse; Henry, who is a chipper and naive guard at the prison with a pregnant wife; John, the town reverend; and Thaddeus, a disillusioned and surly guard at the prison whose mother has been dying of cancer for the last five years. Thaddeus is also having a relationship with Irene, who used to be his mother's best friend. Patrice, a young Vietnamese-American graduate student/reporter shows up to cover and witness the upcoming execution of Jonas Caldwell, who raped and murdered an eight-year-old girl. While in town, she interviews all of the other characters, trying to get a full picture of lives that are surrounded by death. Of course, most of the characters don't look at their lives that way. Irene is just doing her job providing services for people who come for the executions, Thaddeus is just doing his job when he has to tie down the extremities of the condemned, Henry is just doing his job guarding men in cages, Riley was just doing his job, slaughtering cows, Reverend John is just doing his job providing what comfort and counsel he can. But Patrice is more than she claims to be, as we discover when she does get a brief audience with Jonas. It turns out that she was on his jury, and she feels guilty for sending a man to his death. In the end, Jonas is dead, Riley offers to come work for Irene at the Inn and offers his house (haunted for him by the memory of his ex-wife) for her to live in, Thaddeus buries his mother and skips town leaving Henry to take his spot on the tie-down team for the first time and leaving Irene alone. There is a cost to staring death in the face every day - a cost that most of us will never have to face. But the people in this play carry that weight. And even Patrice, who has now witnessed an execution, will carry some of that weight with her forever.

The play poses tough issues of responsibility and the ugliness that we count on but usually don't have to face. And there are also a couple of pretty good men's monologues, so that could be useful to someone one of these days. Overall, I found the play ambitious and sensitive, shining a light on pieces of American life that most of us like to pretend aren't there. And there are moments, even in the depths of these rather bleak lives, that ascend to poetry, and that's pretty important too.

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