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Theatre in Review: Pitbulls (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

Nathan Hinton, Yvette Ganier. Photo: Monica Simoes

You can say one thing for Pitbulls: It features a setting and characters rarely seen in theatre; then again, there may be a reason for that. The action unfolds in a small town near the Ohio River and, especially as rendered in Andrew Boyce's scenic design, it is a remarkably unsanitary place. The main set is a yard in the backwoods, filled with limp, hanging laundry, stools, baskets, random cement blocks, and a washing machine. There is also the moldy-looking exterior of a trailer. This is the home of Mary, who is regarded by the town as a kind of witch, and it is alarming to think that this filthy space is where she makes the homemade wine that provides her with her tiny income. (She notes that the wine derives its distinctive taste from the little drop of her blood that she adds to each bottle.) Mary lives with her teenage son, Dipper --"I named you after a constellation," she tells him--who sells the wine at a highway off-ramp. When Pitbulls begins, Dipper is trying to blow up a dead squirrel; caught in the act, he becomes a suspect in much bigger crimes.

Mary, whose hygiene reportedly needs work, is nevertheless a kind of man magnet. Virgil, the local sheriff, tells Dipper, "Your ma was the tastiest piece of God this side of God," but currently Mary has taken up with Wayne, who doesn't let his job as a minister sway him from adultery and consuming pornography. Wayne, who calls his fling with Mary "an unholy diversion" and "an unsanctified detour," justifies his behavior by saying "it is better to speak your sins than hide them." He woos Mary by bringing her wine goblets.

The plot of Pitbulls involves a municipal plan to attract tourist dollars using dog fighting as an attraction. (Or, as Virgil says, "Coal mine been gone. Penitentiary closed. Just like Cincinnati known for its beer, we want to be known for pitbulls.") This seems like pretty desperate hope for all sorts of reasons, but, anyway, it is the day of "the mayor's annual pitbull summit" and somebody has kidnapped the mayor's dog. Virgil, who came back from Iraq a paranoid, pop-eyed maniac, is convinced that Mary is out to undermine the summit, because someone kidnapped her beloved puppy, which was then killed in a dog fight. Later, Virgil shows up with the dog's head in a bowling bag and arrests Dipper.

As it goes on, the action of Pitbulls increasingly focuses on the contest between Wayne and Virgil for Mary's affections--Wayne by wooing her and Virgil by holding Dipper in jail and blackmailing her. I imagine that Pitbulls' selling points are supposed to be its portrait of a rural underclass scarred by a failed economy and the traumatic effects of war, but really what one takes away from it are its lurid plot developments and overripe dialogue. Virgil, catching Dipper and Mary in a hug, says "Bet if I opened Dip's mouth, I'd smell a warm squirt of mommy milk." Boasting to Mary, he says, "Baby, the sound of my voice made you ovulate." When Dipper refers to Virgil as his father, Mary says, "He's no father. He's just the sperm that bamboozled my egg." Meanwhile, Wayne wants to take Mary away from all this drama. "I think Six Flags can do both of us some good," he says.

Under these circumstances, it's remarkable that Leah C. Gardiner's direction occasionally manages to raise a certain amount of tension. Everyone in the cast goes for broke, an approach that works better in some cases than others. As Mary, Yvette Ganier is a dominating presence, although she could lighten up a bit. Billy Eugene Jones goes a long way toward making Virgil's craziness comprehensible, especially when he is riding Dipper's nerves. Maurice Williams makes Dipper into a convincing case of arrested development. The role of Wayne doesn't really make any sense, but Nathan Hinton does his best with it. What little amusement is on offer comes from Donna Duplantier as Wayne's vengeful wife, Rhonda, the kind of thin-lipped Christian who offers forgiveness like a cup of hemlock. Tearing into Mary, she snarls, "Well, you better keep your sticky hands off my husband, or I'll sic Christ on you. He sets whores on fire."

In addition to making a strong impression, Boyce's set is flexible, with the trailer wall opening up to reveal offices belonging to Wayne and Virgil. Eric Southern's lighting, Dede Ayite's costumes, and Bart Fasbender's sound all add to the production's strong suit, which is its definite sense of place.

Then again, Pitbulls, if anything, suffers from an excess of local color. Its unfamiliar characters and milieu are treated as especially bizarre exhibits in a display of backwoods exotica. It doesn't sympathize with them so much as stare at them--rudely.--David Barbour

(21 November 2014)

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