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BWW Review: Nashville Rep's GOOD MONSTERS

Alexandra Huff and Nathaniel McIntyre in the world premiere of Nate Eppler's Good Monsters

Make no mistake: Nate Eppler is far too good a playwright to remain Nashville theater's best-kept secret for much longer. If you need further proof of his brilliance (a word I don't use to describe people very often), even after witnessing it first-hand in his earlier plays - like the noirish Rear Widow, the imaginative Larries or the compelling Long Way Down - then get yourself as quickly as humanly possible down to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre and allow yourself to be immersed in his latest work of stage wizardry: the challenging, enlightening and provocative Good Monsters.

Good Monsters - in its world premiere production from Nashville Repertory Theatre, deftly directed with precision and with her trademark sensitivity by Rene D. Copeland - is as good a drama as you are likely to find anywhere on any stage in the world. Eppler's script fairly crackles with a fierceness too often missing from much of contemporary theater and there is an intensity to the two-hours of dramatic proceedings that will be hard to shrug off long after you bear witness to it.

To put it succinctly, Nashville Rep's production is theater at its finest: Copeland's six-member cast is extraordinary in their approach to the material, and the creative team provides a setting and backdrop - and more impressively, an ambience - that allows Eppler's play to be elevated beyond its scriptbound parameters to prove itself with the magnitude of all the meanings contained therein. In short, it's a stunning theatrical adventure that fires on all cylinders, drawing audiences into its dystopic story that somehow is accessible and thoroughly believable.

Nathaniel McIntyre and Megan Murphy Chambers

Good Monsters is ideally cast by Copeland with an ensemble of actors who bring the story to life with an overriding sense of fearlessness that is the earmark of theater that will last far beyond the final curtain. Eppler creates such a disturbing and altogether relentless world in which his uniquely original characters live that you will find your most deeply held beliefs challenged and any pre-conceived notions irrevocably shattered.

That Good Monsters deserves to live a long life in theater worldwide is a given, particularly due to Eppler's exquisite turn of phrase, the economy of his language producing thoughts and reactions among his audience that were heretofore unknown and definitely unexpected - and giving full voice to the people who inhabit his fictional, yet all-too-real, world. The natural rhythms and pacing of his dialogue would have you believe the words spoken by the characters evolve naturally from their conversations and the circumstances in which they find themselves - as if Eppler is a documentarian, writing down what he's heard them say in life. That's what makes a Nate Eppler play so startling and, quite frankly, so magnificent: It all comes from the playwright's brain and, perhaps more importantly, from his heart and soul. He never takes the easy way out, his characters aren't always charming and likable, but it is obvious that he respects every single character he creates.

As he writes about some of contemporary America's most hotly debated subjects - racism, police aggression, the socio-political divides among various segments of American society, income inequality in a highly commercialized environment, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, turmoil on the homefront - and setting his action in a Tennessee town that is familiar to one and all, Eppler holds up a mirror to the audience, urging them to consider for the first time (or pehaps to reconsider) their own thoughts, actions and ethos. Clearly, it's an emotional roller-coaster, but it's a ride that anyone would be jonesing to take given the chance.

In Good Monsters, we are introduced to Frank Wayne, a police officer in a small town in upper Middle Tennessee "but still south of Kentucky," who is on indefinite unpaid leave after he shoots a young girl in a Wal-Mart parking lot. He's remained mostly silent in the aftermath of the shooting, even as he deals with hate-filled graffiti wrought by area kids on the aluminum siding of his house or the obliquely threatening phone calls from the father of the young girl he killed.

Nathaniel McIntyre and Garris Wimmer

Throughout Eppler's play, we are introduced to the other people who inhabit Frank's bleak and unyielding world: his wife, Darlene, who gives private dances to clients in nearby hotels and motels to make a buck to pay off attorneys and buy generic snacks, cereal and co'colas; his best friend Dumptruck, also a policeman in the small town, a somewhat stereotypical good ol' boy who remains fiercely loyal to Frank; Josie, a fast-talking and sophisticated "crisis manager" who arrives in town in an attempt to assuage Frank's guilt and to help mitigate his actions, while manipulating public opinion for greatest monetary gain; and Zell, the dead girl's father who wrestles with his own feelings of guilt, failure and abandonment while struggling with a faith-driven message to either kill or to forgive Frank.

Finally, Eppler introduces us to Zero - the young girl shot to death by Frank on that fateful evening in the Wal-Mart parking lot, during which he responded as he was probably trained to terrifying, horrific results. She can only be seen by Frank and it quickly becomes apparent that she is hanging on to the shreds of Frank's humanity in order to inflict as much pain and finality to his life as she herself experienced.

As Eppler delves ever more deeply to show us Frank's own wounded psyche and how the impact of his actions has affected him, he paints a picture of such unrelenting self-hatred and utter confusion that it is difficult to watch. But in the same manner that we can find ourselves drawn to the ugly and twisted aftermath of a terrible accident, we cannot turn away from what's happening to Frank and the punishment he is compelled to dole out to himself. It is devastating, providing testimony to the playwright's abilities to shed light upon a specific situation or moment in time that could go unnoticed by the rest of us focused on our own travails and personal failings.

Copeland's direction moves the action along at a good clip - nothing ever seems rushed and she eschews the predictable - and the play's action and its ultimate denouement are served to the audience at a very natural, unforced pace.

Credit goes to Copeland (and Eppler, as I would suppose he played an integral role in casting) for the selection of her superb ensemble of actors. Nathanial McIntyre gives a completely unvarnished portrayal of Frank, stripping him of any stagey artifice to create a flesh-and-blood character whose broken heart and damaged psyche propels the story forward. While Frank's actions may indeed be reprehensible and the subject of much post-curtain deliberations among audience members, McIntyre creates a credible characterization that ensures audiences will view him with empathy, though it is free of any maudlin sentiment.

Maudlin is hardly a word to be associated with an Eppler script, but he somehow manages to write characters who have a very real, beating heart despite their obvious flaws and the harshness of the world in which they live.

Alexandra Huff plays the other-worldly Zero with a direct and straightforward sense of who she is, leavened with enough precocious humor to render her engaging. She and McIntyre perform a daring and articulate pas de deux in relating their shared story that somehow seems rather new and original.

As Darlene, Frank's raw and grasping wife, Carey Van Driest at first seems a caricature of every woman on every episode of Cops or America's Most Wanted: brittle, slatternly and rough around the edges. But in Van Driest's nuanced performance, we see some glimpses (however brief) of grace in Darlene, even as she teeters on towering platform shoes and serving up pizza rolls.

R. Alex Murray delivers an astoundingly honest portrayal of Dumptruck, providing some much-needed humor in an everyman sort of way that helps the troubling subject matter to land in a more palatable way. Garris Wimmer is terrific as the grieving father of Zero, encapsulating the broken man's rage, despair and heartache with deference that prevents him from being over-the-top.

But it is the performance of Megan Murphy Chambers as Josie, the fixer, that may be the production's most chilling representation of modern-day American greed and avarice. Chambers strides onto the set with confidence and commitment, giving voice to the words written by Eppler with sincerity and an unerring sense of forthrightness that, in retrospect, is almost frighteningly unhinged. And if Nate Eppler is Music City's best-kept theatrical secret, then Chambers must be every director and/or playwright's most-desired interpreter of their vision. Every scene in Good Monsters - no matter how moving or electric - is made better by the force of Chambers' will and her unequaled skill in bringing a character to life.

Gary Hoff's set for Good Monsters - the unkempt and uncared for backyard of Frank and Darlene's house, replete with a towering mountain of derelict televisions - provides the ideal backdrop for the play's action, lending a certain seedy and white trash atmosphere. Darren E. Levin's evocative lighting illuminates the story and directing the focus of the audience's eyes in the process. Trish Clark's costumes provide subtle, yet somehow gaudy, subtext to help us divine who these characters really are, their clothing sharply delineating their roles in the fictional life created onstage.

Technically, Good Monsters excels in unexpected, yet exceedingly theatrical ways - thanks in large part to Ricky Lighthall's exceptional sound design and Colin Peterson's terrific projection design. Credit is also due to fight choreographer Eric D. Pasto-Crosby who helps to develop the tension-filled moments of the play that are almost too difficult to watch at times.

  • Good Monsters. By Nate Eppler. Directed by Rene D. Copeland. Presented in its world premiere production by Nashville Repertory Theatre, at Andrew Johnson Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through February 27. For ticket information, go to Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

Photos by Shane Burkeen

About Nate Eppler's Good Monsters: Nashville Repertory Theatre is proud to produce the world premiere of Good Monsters, a psychological drama centering on an off-duty police officer involved in the shooting of an unarmed teen. Good Monsters will run February 13-27 in Johnson Theater at Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Preview performances are February 11 and 12.

"The catalyst for this story," says Good Monsters playwright Nate Eppler, "is a shocking act of violence: an off-duty officer shoots and kills an unarmed teenage girl. But the play starts after that. The play isn't about the shooting; the play is about the ripples that spread out in all directions from this one violent act. The play is about living in the rubble."

Frank is a Gulf War veteran and police officer who moonlights as a security guard to make ends meet. Safira was a shoplifter. It was dark. Frank thought she had a gun. She didn't. Now Frank's the guy who shot an unarmed teenager, with ramifications for his wife, his best friend, Safira's father, and a media spin doctor looking for a story. While he waits for the grand jury, Safira haunts Frank every night and soon she begins to make terrifying demands of him.

This stunning psychological drama explores how human beings maneuver through earth-shattering tragedy, with intense focus on the human side of a situation gone horribly wrong. While challenging you to question your own preconceptions of good and bad, whatever they may be, this stirring and emotional play transcends predictable notions on both sides of the political divide, drawing humanity to the forefront. NOTE: This play contains intense adult language and sexual situations.

Eppler created Good Monsters during Nashville Rep's 2013-14 Ingram New Works Project, and in 2015 the script was workshopped further with input from relevant community members. Participants included a police officer, sociology professor, suicide prevention counselor, lawyer, PTSD counselor, journalist, and current and former armed services veterans with the goal of maintaining authenticity and to gage what impact the play was accomplishing. Prodding a strong empathy response over blame was a high priority.

"The workshop experience on this play was like nothing else I've experienced," explains Eppler. "Inviting so many unique points of view into the room and really letting them talk to each other was both incredibly illuminating and genuinely fulfilling. Without a doubt their voices made the play better."

Nashville Rep's cast for Good Monsters includes Megan Murphy Chambers (Josie), Alexandra Huff (Zero), Nathaniel McIntyre (Frank), R. Alex Murray (Dumptruck), Carey Van Driest (Darlene), and Garris Wimmer (Zell).

Tickets: Opening night is Saturday, February 13, and the show runs through February 27. Specific performance dates and times are listed below. Tickets start at $25 for previews and start at $45 for regular run, and can be purchased online at or by calling the Box Office at (615) 782-4040.

Good Monsters is written by Nate Eppler and directed by René D. Copeland, Nashville Rep's Producing Artistic Director. Designers are Gary Hoff (Scenic Designer), Trish Clark (Costume Designer), Darren Levin (Lighting Designer), Ricky Lighthall (Sound Designer), and Colin Peterson (Projections Designer). Technical Director is Tyler Axt, and Fight Coordinator is Eric D. Pasto-Crosby.

About The Ingram New Works Project: The Ingram New Works Project was created by Nashville Rep with the support of co-founder Martha R. Ingram to provide an opportunity for theatre artists to develop new theatre works while in residency at Nashville Rep.Each season, Nashville Rep welcomes four emerging playwrights and one established playwright into its Ingram New Works Project. The emerging playwrights make up the Ingram New Works Lab, directed by Nashville Rep's Playwright-in-Residence Nate Eppler. The established, award-winning playwright serves as Nashville Rep's Fellow for the season. The Fellow joins the Lab playwrights for a Symposium Week in January, helping critique and shape their work, and serving as a mentor for the emerging playwrights. Then, all the playwrights, including the Fellow, present their newly written work at Nashville Rep's Ingram New Works Festival in May. The Fellow for 2015-16 is Rebecca Gilman.

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