Heartless in the Heartland

Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers of Eldritch is Our Town fed through a wood-chipper. And I suspect some Vexler patrons will want to toss Rimers in the ol’ chipper as well. For the play is nothing if not — and I truly hate this term — “challenging”: an unconventional 1967 drama about conventional morality, composed with an ear tuned to the echo chamber of hypocrisy. Indeed, somewhere at the center of Rimers is a humdrum murder-mystery, but the play itself is structured as a virtuoso symphony of splintered dialogue and refracted narratives, coalescing around the themes of moral certainty and its evil twin, duplicity. There’s no detective per se in Rimers; that role is played by the audience, who must scramble to piece together the clues before the real culprit, Painful Truth, gets away.

For the record, I didn’t much like Rimers, but I concede that the literary crowd is likely to go wild. To me, it’s pretentious, and that’s hard to swallow in a play that concerns, among other things, the perils of pretense. But the play’s demerits are certainly not the fault of the hardworking lads and lasses at the Vexler Theater, who have obviously poured considerable time, talent, and trees into the production, co-helmed by Ken Frazier and costumer Tami Kai.

Frazier’s evocative set makes you wonder why even 70 people would choose to stay in Eldritch, a decaying Iowa town cobbled together from corrugated sheeting and self-loathing. Frazier’s excellent lighting becomes, in effect, the 71st denizen of this Midwestern purgatory, slithering up as it does to the sanctimonious town magpies (played with relish by Magda Porter and Amy Sloan), or extending a glowing howdy-do to Jennifer Colacino’s lonely proprietress/trollop. (When a town’s this small, you have to double up on the division of labor.) Sometimes the light is literally searching, cascading through stained glass into Carl Rush’s sanctuary-cum-courthouse, or illuminating the daydreams of crippled teen Eva Jackson (affectingly played by Shayna Zalcberg). Mostly, though, the lighting serves to direct and focus the kaleidoscopic, fractal script.

Which is why it comes as a relief when Kevin Murray, as the town’s resident gadfly and in a sense its conscience, delivers in the second act a good old-fashioned tortured monologue, à la Eugene O’Neill. The moment packs a wallop not only because Murray acts the hell out of the scene — kudos to him! — but because, for once, the audience is allowed to make an emotional connection before the script returns to its endless epicycles of puns, repetitions, internal rhyme, internal rime (i.e. hoarfrost), seasonal metaphors, biblical allusions, and the ever-present specter of crucifixion. By the time the audience has constructed in their heads the entire history of Western Civilization’s moral bankruptcy in the face of a sacrificially based master religion, there’s not a lot of time left for, you know, feeling. One thus walks away from Rimers with a clear sense of outrage, but it’s an outrage generated by Wilson at the expense of his characters. In short, to watch Rimers is like ogling the world’s most tendentious crossword puzzle.

The acting ensemble for Rimers is a mixed bag — a slow, awkward gabfest about floods and crops still needs polishing — but generally dispatches the text and its attendant choreography with grace. And the Vexler sure has lucked out in its timing: Republican Senator Larry “I’m Not Gay” Craig’s precipitous (and delicious) fall from grace has catapulted the notion of hypocrisy front and center in the American popular imagination, and while Craig putatively hails from Idaho, he might as well be from Eldritch. (Indeed, the only thing lacking in Eldritch is some hearty man-on-man bathroom sex; perhaps Wilson will consider a revision.) The Vex’s expedition to our rotting heartland is not an easy one, but implies that until America re-examines its moral sermonizing in light of its questionable behavior, it will always remain less a collection of states than a ghastly panorama of Eldritches. And that is rime and reason enough for the trip.


The Rimers of Eldritch
7:30pm Thu, 8pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Sep 20
$18 general; $16 senior, military; $12 student

The Sheldon Vexler Theatre
12500 NW Military
(210) 302-6835