BWW Reviews: Theatre Suburbia's UNDER A COWBOY MOON is a Light-Hearted Play
Theatre Suburbia, Northwest Houston's longest-running all volunteer playhouse, is ringing in the new year with a production of local playwright Carl Williams' UNDER A COWBOY MOON. The light-hearted comedy takes place in the small west Texas town of Spitwhistle, where there really are only cowboys, longnecks, and the Saddle Horn Bar. To encourage tourism, the residents of Spitwhistle organize a cowboy poetry contest with a $500 grand prize. However, a TV crew from the Boston PBS affiliate arrives to film to contest, and the prize is raised to $5,000. With a touch of romance and a lot of ego, the competitors set out to prove who has the best pen in the west.
Carl Williams' writing is entertaining, showcasing a natural wit on par with any television sitcom. Creating a cast of fun characters, his play comes across as a mix between the independent film The Spitfire Grill and the documentary Hands on a Hardbody. Behind each persona is a lot of heart, and the stakes are believable as well. The conflict is minimal, but with such lovable characters, the audience can't help but pay attention.
Elvin Moriarty's direction taps into the light-hearted spirit of the script, ensuring that the play is ultimately a feel-good event in spite of its somewhat "Hard Candy Christmas" style ending. The funny parts make the audience laugh with ease, the light romance makes the audience swoon, and the tension surrounding the poetry contest keeps us involved and guessing what will happen next.
Each member of the large cast does well with their characters, ensuring that the audience likes each and every one of them and that we feel connected to them in some way. As proprietor of the Saddle Horn Bar, Megan Nix creates a portrait of a strong, independent woman with her characterization of PA Carswell. David James Barron plays Duece Whatley as a washed up small town personality that still has hopes and dreams, earning empathy from the audience with ease. Taylor Wildman's youthful Henry Burke is green around The Edges but unafraid to ask for advice. Playing documentarian Rebecca Proctor, Amanda Garcia creates an intelligent character that seems legitimately interested in the poetry contest and the people involved. Bob Galley portrays Simon Dawes, the cameraman, as a man who simply wants to get the job done and get back to Boston. The arrogant Rafe Cainfield, a character the audience loves to hate, is perfectly played by Christopher G. Keller. Rafe's girlfriend Teri Blair is brought to live by Helen Hurn, who moves the character from having no identity of her own to being strong in her own right by the end of the show. Jill Milligan, a student at UT Austin and PA's waitress, is played with a certain sassy charm by Rebeca Stevens. Jeff Henniger plays professor Michael Tibbets with an erudite air that is not off-putting but definitely distances him from the more simplistic cowboy/West Texas aesthetic of the other characters. Adrian Collinson portrays reigning Cowboy Poet Champion Boon Hawkins with effective modesty and humility.
For a community theatre subsisting only on volunteer hours being put into every aspect of the production, I found the performance to be pretty strong. In fact, the only weakness I found was in Act I's climatic fight scene. The problem I had with the scene was that the emotions being portrayed during the scene didn't seem to realistically match the emotions described in the dialogue because no one seemed truly upset. Furthermore, the fight choreography was very loose, which allowed for a lot of lag time between each of the successive pushes. In effect, the scene feels extremely controlled, so it loses its urgency. Instead of a fight, audiences are presented with a scene that is so heavily rehearsed and meticulously blocked that it doesn't seem natural.
Each of the technical elements works well for the production. Elvin Moriarty's Set Design is nicely rustic, but the painted distressing of the walls looks uneven. Likewise, Elvin Moriarty's Lighting Design keeps the cast in great light, but I would have liked to see some differentiation across the four scenes as they take place during different times of the day. By keeping the lighting the same, it gives the idea that the bar has no windows in it at all, preventing any semblance of natural lighting from entering the space. Costuming by Margaret Buckley and the cast suits each character well, utilizing the Country Western aesthetic to create visual representations of the characters that are appropriate and believable.