BWW Reviews: Nate Eppler's LONG WAY DOWN from 3PS Productions

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It should be noted that at the conclusion of the opening night performance of Nate Eppler's Long Way Down - now onstage at Street Theatre Company in a thoroughly satisfying production from Johnny Peppers and 3PS Productions - after director Lauren Shouse's four superb actors had taken their bows and left the stage, the lights came up and the audience sat completely still. Riveted to their seats by the brilliantly told tale that had just played out before them, audience members quietly processed their thoughts, basking in the afterglow of what was, most certainly and without fear of exaggeration, one of the most important nights Nashville theater has ever seen.

Why so important? Quite simply, with Long Way Down Eppler proves himself a playwright of the highest order, delivering a well-crafted script that delves into the pro-life movement with an incisive wit that is blended artfully with a gritty realism to create a completely believable premise, peopled by characters so genuine it is as if you know them intimately. To put it succinctly, Nate Eppler is likely to become very famous, with Long Way Down a most worthy vehicle for his success.

Eppler's estimable writing in Long Way Down brings to mind such a disparate band of playwrights as Sam Shepard, Christopher Durang, Tennessee Williams and Tracy Letts (with maybe some early John Waters screenplays thrown in for the revulsion/fascination factor), yet his voice is entirely unique, a fresh outlook on the human condition. And somehow, perhaps most revealing, is Eppler's ability to write such florid prose while remaining true to his mission and, especially, to the characters he has created, displaying a warmth and affection for these fictional people that betrays his belief in mankind as a whole. He doesn't shy away from showing us the truly ugly things in life, but there remains a kernel of hope throughout that makes his exploration enormously intriguing and endlessly entertaining: the multi-faceted story he tells is not easily resolved and, therefore, is as provocative as any you've seen before.

First presented to the theater-going public last year as part of Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Ingram New Works Festival, the script for Long Way Down once again proves Eppler's genius for creating dialogue that fairly crackles with the intensity of terrifying truths, underscored by a dark humor that makes it all the more searingly potent. And while his characters speak in the popular vernacular of their fictional setting (a small Tennessee town just north of Nashville), thanks to Eppler's inimitable way with words, their language becomes almost lyrical - particularly as delivered by the amazing quartet of actors who bring the play to such vividly horrifying life onstage.

Long Way Down tells the story of four sad souls struggling to find their way in the world amid all the vagaries and disappointments of these times in which we live - rife with tabloid rumors and the 24/7 media coverage that is filled with biting social commentary and partisan politics - that have effectively driven wedges of unease and discomfort between people who consider themselves friends or lovers. At first blush, Long Way Down focuses on young Maybelline (Jennifer Richmond), a simple-minded young woman who has lived her downtrodden existence for so long that she can hardly foster enough hope to look past her dismal present for any type of happier future. But there is so much more to be found in Long Way Down that your initial, visceral response to the play is likely to become skewed as your move deeper into Eppler's twisted, yet altogether fascinating, play.

With her older (and unseen) sister Chanel doing time for an apparent attack on an abortion provider's clinic, Maybelline has plenty of problems of her own to deal with: an apparent miscarriage - brought on by the savage attack by her married lover - that left her unable to bear children, and an incident that left a child with two broken ribs at the daycare center that once employed her.

Maybelline lives with her strident and high-strung sister, Saralee (Rebekah Durham) who lashes out at her verbally every chance she gets and who is determined to sell the family's house while Chanel wallows away in prison. Saralee is 13 weeks pregnant ("This baby is no more than a peanut right now," she screeches at her husband) and is determined, somehow and some way, to make a better life for her child, even if it means ridding herself of her decaying childhood home or Duke (David Compton), that depressed and dispirited husband who is most often the target of her invective.

Complicating things is Karen (Rachel Agee), who can best be described as a deranged, Bible-thumping zealot, out to stop the pro-choice movement in any way she can and by using whatever tools she finds at her disposal. After a short stint in prison for some earlier transgression, Karen finds other ways to challenge what she considers to be an ungodly social movement in order to bring everyone, but most especially herself, closer to "Him" through "the good work," which now includes kidnapping babies from those people she considers unsuitable parents or just plain unworthy of raising children.

What transpires is so terrible that it seems impossible to comprehend, the horrors of the story unfathomable in polite society. But it is presented with such conviction - and, however surprising it may be, both the playwright's and in turn his audience's affection for these characters - that it cannot help but seem real and so very timely. Clearly, what sets Long Way Down apart from the plethora of other original scripts issuing forth from the growing community of playwrights in Nashville, is its frank brutality made all the more compelling by the wicked sense of humor that pervades the play's action. The leavening of the plot's dramatic elements with humor makes the story more palatable for audiences, while driving home the playwright's viewpoint (which is, essentially, that every viewer will take away his or her own version of the story) gracefully, without even a hint of didacticism, while he leaves the story - particularly the play's ending - to individual, if unsettling, interpretation.

Shouse partners with Eppler to deliver a production that is laudable in every aspect, casting four excellent actors in the roles and then allowing the plot to reveal itself in impressive and breathtaking fashion. Shouse's intuitive choices for the onstage action, expressed so eloquently by her actors, ensures that Eppler's words are treated not so much with reverence, as with respect.

Jennifer Richmond's performance is nothing less than revelatory: digging deep into her reserve, she delivers a Maybelline who is at once sweetly sentimental while somehow glaringly ignorant and off-putting. Richmond's reading of her lines is beautiful, with each word and phrase filled with meaning and nuance. Yet there is nothing overblown or overtly theatrical about her performance, rather it is restrained and heartfelt - which makes the character of Maybelline so wonderfully accessible and sympathetic.

Cast as Karen, Rachel Agee gives a tour de force performance: a living/breathing conundrum of a woman who is frightening in her manically religion-obsessed way, but who is actually kind of funny despite her seemingly murderous ways. Agee's cold-blooded dispatch of those who stand in her way is chilling, giving her the opportunity to create an indelible onstage persona that might haunt or torment you, but which ultimately entertains you.

David Compton, who is never better than he is as a Southern layabout or stereotypical redneck, imbues Duke with his very heart and soul, crafting yet another impressive performance to add to his already burgeoning resume. Compton's fearless portrayal of the hapless, ineffectual Duke is - despite the character's lackluster personality and defeatist attitude - colorful and multi-dimensional, and the actor's resolute approach results in a startling performance.

Finally, Rebekah Durham completes the quartet as the mean-spirited Saralee, making the most of her character's flawed personality to create a role that is virtually indescribable. Saralee, at one moment yelling and screaming at her sister or husband, is at another all maternal and nurturing toward the baby she cradles in her arms. Durham takes a largely unlikable character and shows us the range of Saralee's personality while showing us her range as an actor.

Compton deserves praise for doing double duty as technical director and scenic director for this production. His unit set, which depicts the crumbling and decaying home of the crumbling and decaying family, is imaginatively designed and beautifully constructed. Katie Gant's expressive lighting design helps not only to illuminate the set, but also to highlight the play's action and its underlying themes. Rosemary Fosse's costume design clothes the actors well, exemplifying her ability to capture the characters' personalities through the styles they wear.

And, finally, kudos to producer Johnny Peppers for taking on the challenge of presenting a new and untested (well, sort of) script to the stage with such unfailing support and courage. He made the right decision.

- Long Way Down. By Nate Eppler. Directed by Lauren Shouse. Presented by 3PS Productions, at Street Theatre Company, 1933 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville. Through May 28. For further information, visit the company website at www.3PSProductions.com; for tickets, visit www.ticketsnashville.com.

Pictured: Jennifer Richmond and Rachel Agee in Nate Eppler's Long Way Down

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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