BWW Review: Swafford's Overly Earnest CRAZY ALL THESE YEARS
Strong performances from a quartet of Nashville actors and capable writing and deftly handled direction by Jeff Swafford should be enough to create a compelling and engaging stage play. Unfortunately, those elements don't add up to what we'd hoped for in Woodland Entertainment's production of Crazy All These Years, onstage at Nashville's Darkhorse Theatre through next weekend.
Yet despite its obvious shortcomings - none of the characters are particularly likable, the situations in which they find themselves aren't necessarily engaging, and their stories seem inauthentic at best, hard-to-believe at worst - Swafford's overly earnest script nonetheless rings with a sense of reality and true-to-life experiences. And therein may lie the reason Crazy All These Years just doesn't work as a stage play: what should be an emotionally draining and affecting play instead appears to be more of a documentary, Jonathan Gower's maudlin original musical score notwithstanding, one in which the characters are the same at the end as they were at the outset of the tragicomic two hours of storytelling.
In Swafford's play, 33-year-old Ben (played by Michael Adcock) returns home from New York to his Tennessee hometown, where his mother Martha (Cinda McCain) lingers close to death after a series of heart attacks have ravaged her body. It's Ben's first trip home since he left 15 years earlier and he returns to find things virtually unchanged in his absence: his overweight sister, Rose, is dead after years of caring for Martha; Lori (Jennifer Richmond) the winsome and charming girl next door, remains smitten with him even while knowing he was romantically involved with her brother Joe (Daniel Hackman) while they were all in high school; and the aforementioned Joe has shrugged off the yoke of homosexual oppression to, presumably, become the faithful husband to a woman who's supposedly none the wiser that her husband prefers cock.
While all of that rings true - let's face it, small-town Southern life is difficult when you're different (whatever your difference may be) and Tennessee hometowns (where everyone, it seems, works at the one big factory still in operation - apparently, Wal Mart isn't currently hiring) all across the state are filled with closeted men trying to pass themselves off as raving heteros - somehow Crazy All These Years is disappointingly false and rather vacuous despite Swafford's spot-on dialogue.
Why? Well, first off, it's hard to find anything to like about the four people who inhabit Crazy All These Years. Martha is a complaining harridan, the stereotypical fictional mother of a gay son who drives him away with her inability to cope with his sexual orientation, focusing instead on herself because of circumstances we never really come to know. Ben is a drug-addicted party boy, who has skated by on his charm and good looks and who, as a child, used to enjoy dressing up in his mother's dresses and heels as a child and only recently celebrated Halloween in princess drag (yet there's not even a hint of flamboyant behavior in his current demeanor or carriage). Lori implores Ben to marry her, telling him that what they each do "on the side" will have no impact on their peculiar arrangement and despite his protestations that he won't do that to her, she continues to throw herself at him in ways both sad and pathetic. And finally, the stalwart Joe, who blames Ben for how his life as turned out since he left him high and dry in the hills of Tennessee, explains that while he likes his wife, he doesn't particularly love her.
The audience, arriving on the familial scene with Joe, is left to ponder what might have been (were we fully, or even marginally, engaged in what's happening to these people) and pray for the hastening of Martha's impending death so that she (and we, truth be told) will be put out of her misery. For anyone who has dealt with the pain and suffering of watching one's parent succumb to death and disease, Martha's demise will certainly hit close to home and, therefore, is difficult to watch. But, if during Act Two, you're thinking "just die already," something needs to be changed in the story. Couldn't we at least hear some words of wisdom from Martha? Maybe even an "I love you, son" as she approaches death's door? Or some deathbed confession about what happened to make her the way she is?
There is nothing inspirational or hopeful about the tale - and that's okay, too, since life indeed can be messy, complicated and unresolved - but there should be something or someone in the piece for which to root. As it is, you can't help but wonder why anyone in his or her right mind (and, clearly, the once suicidal, recovering drug addict who is Ben, who has been working as a model, may be the very definition of "not in his right mind") would want to move back to this particular hometown and live an unfulfilled life of woeful desolation, dashed dreams and pitiable insignificance.
As Martha, Cinda McCain delivers yet another searing portrayal - the kind of which only she, among the plethora of working actors in Nashville, can deliver - playing her character, warts and all, with enough sincerity and genuine disdain for her life that makes it difficult to witness and definitely hard to watch. The energetic and high-spirited McCain is able to cloak those personal attributes in the role of a woman close to death who rails against life and begs to finally get her break: release from the bonds that keep her alive.
Michael Adcock plays the diffident and self-absorbed Ben with confidence and speaks his dialogue with a natural manner that works well, although his lack of chemistry with the solid Daniel Hackman as upright citizen Joe is palpable, rendering their kissing scene totally unbelievable: "Straight Guys Kissing! Right Here! Right Now!" There's no passion (or tongues) between two men who have thought about making out for some 15 years or so.
Jennifer Richmond's Lori probably fares better than the other characters, thanks to Richmond's thorough commitment to the role and her unfaltering focus on what makes Lori tick. Richmond underplays the heavier moments, ensuring that your heart will break as she professes her desire to marry Ben.
Emily Sue Laird's scenic design makes good use of the intimate Darkhorse playing area, creating a sense of confinement in the home that is apparent in Swafford's script, and Katie Gant's expressive and evocative lighting design underscores the pervasive ennui throughout.
Crazy All These Years. By Jeff Swafford. Produced by Derek Whittaker. Presented by Woodland Entertainment at The Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through April 22. Tickets are available at www.ticketsnashville.com or at the door 30 minutes prior to show time. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (with one 10-minute intermission).
About the show: Woodland Entertainment founder Jeff Swafford will bring his new play Crazy All These Years from the screen to the stage of Nashville's iconic Darkhorse Theater April 13-22.
Originally shot as a film featuring local actress Cinda McCain, Crazy All These Years is a poignant yet humorous look at life, death and the damage caused by running away from the past. This new drama, described as "quiet and compelling," focuses on Ben, a gay man who returns to his small Tennessee hometown to care for his cantankerous dying mother. As they struggle to understand one another, Ben must also examine his previous relationships and the broken hearts left in his wake.
"The idea for this story started out as a play," says Swafford, a stage actor during his early career. I've always wanted to see it on stage because I believe the emotional impact of the story lends itself well to live theater and I'm excited to see it in front of an audience." Swafford helms the world premiere production of the stage presentation, having served as writer/director of the film version of Crazy All These Years, as well as the web series Three.
After graduating from Murfreesboro's Middle Tennessee State University, Swafford moved to Los Angeles and worked in the film industry for 15 years, most notably with director Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender. His credits include such films as Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2) and Good Will Hunting.
The Nashville premiere of Crazy All These Years marks the first theatrical production of Swafford's company, Woodland Entertainment.
Woodland Entertainment's Crazy All These Years runs select dates April 13-22 at Darkhorse Theatre, 4610 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 13-15 and 20-22. Tickets are $15 and are available online at www.ticketsnashville.com or at the door 30 minutes prior to show time. Seating is limited. A portion of each ticket sold benefits the Tennessee Equality Project.