BWW Reviews: No Rules Theatre Co Starts Season Strong with Quirky LATE: A COWBOY SONG

Ah, No Rules Theatre Company has started its season! For the DC theatre community, the small, but rapidly growing company is the perfect case study of what great things can happen when there's a perfect blend of ambition and willingness to be challenged, artistic talent, attention to detail, and a veritable openness to selecting shows that might not necessarily be recognizable to the theatergoing masses, among other attributes. Its latest quirky offering, starting off a second season in residence at Arlington's Signature Theatre, is what we've perhaps come to expect from the company that continues to offer the unexpected. And that's more or less a good thing.

Late: A Cowboy Song is one of acclaimed playwright Sara Ruhl's earlier works that's not often produced - at least in comparison to In the Next Room -The Vibrator Play, Dead Man's Cellphone, and The Clean House, all of which have been presented in the DC Metro Area. In fact, this is the DC premiere. While the script does not feature a discussion of humanity that's as insightful, nuanced, and wonderfully detailed as some of Ruhl's other offerings, it is an excellent way to start of a season that's - per Artistic Director Joshua Morgan - going to be focused on examining identity and all of its facets.

The production features perceptive and tight direction from Rex Daugherty, mostly strong acting from a three-member cast, purposeful and melodic music compositions from Kinsey Charles and Rex Daugherty, and well-integrated lighting and scenic design from Cory Ryan Frank. As a whole, it is recommended for those theatregoers willing to experience something a little out of the box.

Ruhl's Mary (Sara Olmsted Thomas) is always late, much to the chagrin of her controlling husband Crick (Chris Dinolfo). They've been together since the second grade and have created an average life for themselves in Pittsburgh. Beyond the persistent lateness, the marriage is now showing other signs of strain. Crick is out of work and the financial burdens rest solely on Mary's shoulders - his request to borrow $500 (for something she later learns is quite absurd) sets off an argument. When Mary rekindles a friendship with old high school classmate Red (Alyssa Wilmoth) - a cowboy who lives outside of the city limits with her horses - she begins to experience what life is like outside of her oppressive marriage. This does not sit well with Crick.

At the same time, the marriage sees other changes as well. Mary learns she's pregnant and Crick must go back to work as an art museum guard to provide for their child, shifting the power balance. When the child is born, it presents with both male and female features and the two parents can't quite agree - like most things in their marriage - on what to name the child, let alone how to raise it. As time passes and in part due to Red's influence, Mary becomes more aware of her own unhappiness. She gains the courage to explore who she really is, who her husband is, and disrupt the status quo even further and establish her own identity apart from everyone else in her world. What unfolds in the play is generally an exploration of gender roles, power balances in marital relationships, and the search for identity and meaning in one's life.

Given the number of soap opera/melodramatic twists at play, it can be relatively easy to lose sight of the heart of the play. Yet, underneath it all - thanks to a solid mix of quirkiness, humanity, and heart - there is an important message even if it's a heavy-handed one. In addition, the strong acting from Wilmoth and Dinolfo in particular add dimension to the story that might not otherwise exist given all of the characters are largely archetypes intended to assist Ruhl in examining the social issues of interest.

Wilmoth further establishes herself here as one of most versatile actresses in the DC area. Dressed in Lynly Saunders' perfect take on what a cowboy might wear, she is quiet yet undeniably complex as the mysterious Red. Portraying Red, she is more than up to the task of tenderly helping to instigate change in Mary's life without actually outwardly intending to do so. Her consistent, natural, and perceptive performance - which also incidentally proves she can sing a mean folk country tune while playing acoustic guitar - is one of the major reasons why this production is ultimately compelling. To sum it up, it's a case study in giving a heartfelt performance without seemingly trying too hard.

Dinolfo is quite adept at displaying the unlikable Crick's nearly constant simmering anger and selfishness, yet he does so in a way that presents him as a man who's struggling to also find his way in the world. His reactions to Mary's behavior are always grounded in the exact situation the couple is facing though informed by his general domineering nature.

In lesser directorial and acting hands, those tasked with portraying Crick and Mary might tread very far into the 'campy acting' territory given the heavy mix of quirk and normalcy they are expected to balance in nearly every scene they have together. Dinolfo, for the most part, avoids this. Olmsted Thomas is slightly less successful, but that might be in part due to the constraints of her character as written. She often reverts into a fairly standard yet heightened fairytale-like 'damsel in distress' mode no matter the context with every line being delivered with the same intonation and whiny voice. Yet, one has to appreciate the challenge that she's dealt in taking on this character. In the end, we do, to one to degree or another, care where Mary ends up. That, in and of itself, is a testament to her acting.

Daugherty, proving he's a master at balancing quirk and well-intentioned story-telling, is able to show the dance that Mary is dancing - both literally and figuratively - in her relationships and in her own mind in a consistently interesting way. Overall, this artistic vision serves the piece well.

Cory Ryan Frank's scenic design - featuring Red's stables and Crick and Mary's average, unremarkable dwelling place - is not only well-designed and detailed, but serves to further illustrate the divide between the freedom Mary has when she's with Red and the oppression she subjects herself to when she's not. Although his lighting design can seem a bit like overkill at times (particularly during a holiday montage that needs to be seen to be fully experienced), it does contribute to the overall picture of Mary's - and by extension Red and Crick's - world.

All in all, this production is a strong start to No Rules' season. The company continues to surprise yet maintain consistency and you can't really ask for more than that.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Late: A Cowboy Song plays at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA - through January 19. Tickets can be purchased online through Ticketmaster.

Photo: Second Glance Photography (Sara Olmsted Thomas and Chris Dinolfo pictured)

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From This Author Jennifer Perry