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Theatre in Review: Cal in Camo (Colt Coeur/Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

David Harbour, Katya Campbell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

When the lights come up on an actress, sitting slumped at downstage right, using a pump to extract her breast milk and looking depressed as all get-out, you somehow know that, in this production, laughs will be at a premium. So it is with Cal in Camo, an exercise in clinical depression that seems determined to be as off-putting as possible. The lady in question is the title character, newly married and living in a housing development in the middle of nowhere, Illinois. Next, we meet Cal's husband, Tim, a modern-day Willy Loman desperately peddling a line of craft beers to the uninterested proprietors of dive bars. When an especially skeptical customer declines to detect a hint of orange in one of Tim's products, Tim breaks down, pathetically begging him for an order, citing his wife and newborn and insisting that he can't stand one more refusal.

Meanwhile, back at home, Cal tells Tim that she has sent for her brother, Flynt, whose wife has died in a drowning accident. (Cal and Flynt are "river people," notes Tim, who has no use for Flynt.) The Cal-Tim marriage is already under severe stress. For reasons that are never made clear, Cal had insisted on moving out of Chicago, where Tim's sales career seemingly thrived. For reasons that are even less clear, Tim had prevailed on Cal to have a baby that she didn't really want. "You want me, this is where I'll be," Cal snarls. "You wanted a baby, this is where she's being raised. That was the deal." Some deal: Cal couldn't be less interested in being a mother. "My own baby girl is upstairs sleeping and I wanna leave before she wakes up again," she says.

Matters don't improve when Flynt arrives, dressed in camouflage overalls and displaying a flat-affect manner apparently meant to indicate that he has been poleaxed by grief. Within minutes, he points out that there is vast sinkhole on Cal and Tim's property; not long after, Tim notices a big crack in their kitchen wall. Flynt disappears during a thunderstorm, taking the Colt rifle that is the only thing of value Tim owns, then returns with a long story about how, with tremendous effort, he rescued a doe from the sinkhole, which has been made especially deadly by the downpour. This is quickly revealed to be a metaphor for Flynt's inability to save his late wife.

Then again, everything in Cal in Camo is a symbol of decay and dissolution, applied without subtlety or regard for surface believability. It's not enough that Cal and Tim's marriage is coming undone; their kitchen has to be splitting in two. Cal's lack of maternal instinct has to be illustrated, time and again, by having her remove her top to reveal her breasts, bruised by her attempts at producing milk. And of course, Flynt, staring into the rescued doe's face, must see the face of his drowned spouse.

The playwright, William Francis Hoffman, is so busy drawing neat little dramatic patterns that he never gets around to creating characters who make any sort of psychological sense. Why on earth did Cal marry Tim in the first place? Why did she agree to have his child? Why did she force him to live somewhere he cannot ply his trade? The key revelation is that Cal and Flynt were raised apart after their mother abandoned them; thus, her determined attempts at getting close to him -- despite his almost zombified demeanor -- while flagrantly neglecting her husband and child. But, as rendered by Hoffman, nobody seems to belong to anyone else; they're just a random collection of basket cases formed into a triptych of human misery.

Cal in Camo wants to merge a Humans-style portrait of the middle class at bay with a fable about family bonds, or the lack of them, but its emotionally hobbled characters are so weighed down with tragedies -- too many of which are too obviously designed to illustrate the play's theme -- that one simply recoils from them. Adrienne Campbell-Holt's direction has some vigor when David Harbour, as Tim, and Katya Campbell, as Cal, have at each other, but she can do little to ameliorate the generalized atmosphere of gloom. As Flynt, a one-dimensional icon of suffering, Paul Wesley is hopelessly lumbered.

John McDermott's kitchen set looks just like what you would find in a cheap pre-fab housing development, although the backdrop and side panels depicting the surrounding forest are strangely indistinct. This may be because they don't take light well, or perhaps the lighting designer, Grant Yeager, hasn't been able to light them properly, although the rest of his work is fine. Sueann Leung's costumes are pretty solid; that Flynt appears to have traveled only with those awful overalls or that, after the storm, he turns up in filthy, mud-stained long johns, are details dictated by the script. Amy Altadonna's sound design provides such crucial effects as a crying baby and thunderclaps.

It's typical of Cal in Camo that when Flynt departs, he does so in his underwear, leaving behind his camouflage overalls for Cal to hang on to (hence the play's title). The fact that he's not likely to get a quarter of a mile in that condition seems to be of little concern. The people don't make sense, but as long as the symbols are in place, I guess the author is happy. -- David Barbour


(23 May 2016)

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