BWW Review: Atmospheric and riveting LAST MAN CLUB at Axis Company
There are no sure bets in theater. That's the excitement and reality of live performance and creative risk taking. There are, however, reliable pockets of extraordinary levels of sustained excellence. One can presume a visit to the small Greenwich Village basement space of the Axis Company will include mind-blowing ambiance. Last Man Club beautifully overloads the senses and transports you to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
For its twentieth anniversary season, Axis Company's Artistic Director Randy Sharp has reprised her 2013 play. Farmers in the praries of Texas and Oklahoma destroyed the topsoil which contained native grasses. Without those deep rooted plants to protect the land through periods of drought and high winds, dust storms raged on for the better part of the decade. Many escaped to find a better way of life. John Steinbeck immortalized that migration in his magnificent book The Grapes of Wrath.
Ms. Sharp has taken a different route, telling a story of a family that decided to stick it out. When the lights go down at the start of this play, the wind is deafening. The composer and sound designer of many Axis productions, Paul Carbonara, creates a harsh environment through sound. You sit there for a while to take it all in. When the lights come up, the dust is so prevalent that you can practically smell it and taste it.
Four people remain in this house. There are no neighbors anymore. No one goes outside without a face covering. Major (Jon McCormick, superb) is the man of this home, determined to see the light when it arrives at the other end of this storm. His brother decided to leave for better pastures in California, taking all the money with him. Saromy (Britt Genelin) and Wishful Hi (Lynn Mancinelli) are the ladies in residence. Both dream about the picture shows. Pogord (Spencer Aste) is healing from a broken arm. Everyone is damaged in some way; beaten down by their never ending environmental misery.
There is activity outside the home. Occasionally a vehicle passes by. There will be two different visitors that drop in to check on the family. One takes his hat off to let the dust fall, underscoring the intense conditions. The mysterious plot revolves around these strangers and survival decisions. Claustrophobic emotional drama is the mood. Tension is the catalyst which drives this tale forward.
Last Man Club is not a play which tells a straightforward story. What happens and does not happen is for the audience to decide. This experience is best described as immersive environmental theater. With all of the current conversations about climate change, the timing is certainly right to consider the implications of a man-made disaster. When you leave the theater, you will have resided in that sad home and felt choked by the dust and despair. The atmosphere is suffocating and riveting.
The six actors combine a naturalistic style with their unique character's individualized quirkiness. Relationship histories are hinted at. The audience is given the opportunity to color between the lines. This is a theater piece to experience not simply to follow a story arc. There is a darkness looming everywhere. Can the human spirit conjure up hope in a horrific world of doom and gloom?