BWW Review: LAST MAN CLUB at Axis Theatre
Earth, air, water, and fire -- every vital element reaches critical risk level in Last Man Club, a tense dystopian mood piece from writer/director Randy Sharp at Axis Theater. This one-act historical drama blows in with gale force as Sharp and her creative team unearth the allure and agony of Depression-era manifest destiny compounded by an environmental crisis. We see hope (through an apocalyptic lens) as tragedy howls outside the door.
First, a bit of historical context. From 1930-1939, the "Great American Desert of the Texas and Oklahoma plains" was virtually destroyed by the aggressive expansion of wheat farming. This process, which plowed beneath the bluestem and buffalo grass holding the dirt in place, created airborne dust storms that packed enough static electricity to power the city of New York. Many residents refused to leave their desolate, dust-covered farms--even after their animals died and they had to resort to eating bitter roots to survive.
Major (Jon McCormick) is the misogynistic patriarch of one of these families. As the play opens, a jaundice haze obscures what appears to be the interior of an abandoned prairie home: an unidentifiable long lump occupies a bench next to a primitive table blanketed with dust. A lantern (dirty and dim) is perched precariously on the edge of the table and serves as an apt metaphor for the plight of Major and his family: dirt poor, hope rich, and seeking support from a variety of crutches: liquor, song, celebrity magazines, the promise of science, and the sense-making that comes from sharing memories.
Saromy (Britt Genelin) recalls, "I remember Jim Hagarn good. First wife died a the dust pneumonia. His farm got over run by grasshoppers. It's like walking on a carpet a peanut shells. Then he just disappeared."
Parched and hungry with their eyes and mouths covered, these folks are desperate beyond measure.
It's apparent that the cumulative mental and physiological effects of the Dust Bowl are compounding, particularly for the elder Pogord (Spencer Aste):
"That electricity'll hit me and I'll be DEAD! I can't DO another storm! I can't DO IT! I'm getting back in my bed here and waiting for the end. I only wished one thing: that I had a wet sheet to make it go a little easier. Cover me. Cover me."
Disrupting these dire straits come a couple of seeming saviors, Pints and Henry (George Demas and Brian Barnhart). Drifters or grifters? They claim to be neither, but rather do-gooders seeking investors with "seed money" for what they purport to be science vs. a dubious scheme. The more they talk and promise, the looser Major's grip on reality gets -- all it takes is a little kindness.
(Pints) "I walked by a hundred houses half buried in dirt. All the shelves is full of keepsakes and books and note papers and old perfume bottles...but nobody lives there. Saw an old dog electrocuted in the storm...People gone and lost in the dust, blowed their brains out, horses buried up to their mouths...and then I come on your farm and finally seen all these nice people pulling together and staying and working even after your brother gone and ran in the night to California."
Paul Carbonara (composer/sound design) crafts a haunting, wraparound aural environment: songbirds chirp, crows caw, and a wolf-like wind howls. As soon as the audience has become accustomed to these sound effects, we are further jarred by the wail of a siren. Having grown up in the tornado-prone Midwest, I immediately tensed at this familiar foreboding reminder to take cover.
While conflict between the homesteaders and the interlopers escalates indoors, life outside looms with uncertainty; we bear witness to the characters reconciling their overlapping moments of doubt and vulnerability, and that's where LMC forces us to take nature's hand: the macrocosm of an insidious natural disaster has been pinpointed to this microcosmic bunker mentality.
The compelling paradox of Last Man Club is that it succeeds as a technically clean production while vividly presenting such a depressing dilemma: in times of environmental crisis, what are willing to lose? What do we have to gain? What fresh hell is this? You won't breathe easy, but the experience is worth it.
The show runs through June 28, 2019. Ticket info: axiscompany.org