I’ll cut to the chase. It’s not happy and it’s not fun … but it’s good.
The provocative new Circle Theatre production of Neil LaBute’s The Distance From Here pulls you in. It’s superbly acted and its energy never flags. Yes, there’s plenty of smoking, swearing and violent behavior. This dark, disturbing play constantly throws around the “f” and “c” words as well as racial slurs. The beer-swilling, chain-smoking characters might have been plucked off an episode of the Jerry Springer show. But LaBute’s work does not shock for shock’s sake.
Jeffrey Cass directs his extraordinary cast with assurance. His cinematic pace features frequent “cuts” to different scenes that flow and overlap without a lag. There’s never a loss of pace or tension. Cass, by the way, previously also directed LaBute’s Bash at Circle. This show is an even tighter, more ambitious actors’ piece.
We are visiting a dim, claustrophobic world where a teenage time bomb seems ready to explode. Darrell, expertly played by Garrett Matheson, is both scary and heartbreaking. He’s vacant yet dangerous”clearly in the midst of a meltdown. A half century ago he’d have been called a rebel without a cause.
The play is full of hard, gritty writing but there’s a meandering structure that initially feels frustratingly aimless. Soon you see that’s the point. These guys are trapped”they’re going nowhere.
In the opening scene, Darrell and Tim (Jason Wisnewski) are hanging out at the zoo, ditching high school for their favorite pastime, making fun of the apes in cages. Yeah, okay, LaBute. We get it. These losers are more trapped than the chimps. When clumsy Tim literally gets ants in his pants and rips them off, it’s like a lost reel of Wayne’s World or Beavis and Butthead Go To The Monkey House. But we quickly sense their pain and rage boiling so close to their surface horseplay. These boys could become Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, responsible for the killing spree at Columbine High School.
The play captures a stratum of our society we may choose not to notice”that unrecorded demographic some folks rudely dub “white trash.” Those of us inclined to be more sympathetic realize that with a combination of a rough childhood, poor role models and bad luck, we could be the same. The American Dream now eludes many young people. LaBute captures the volatile emptiness facing working class young men like Darrell and Tim coming of age in an emotionally threadbare environment. Yet the play is far from a “workers of the world” proletarian protest.
Darrell is just bright enough to realize his life is empty and heading nowhere. Yet the void seems to grow ever larger. He has a growing sense of frustration and abandonment.
Darrell’s inattentive mother (Debbie Ruzicka) is undefined, even to herself. She’s got a live-in couch potato boyfriend, a Gulf War vet named Rich (Mason Hill.)
Darrell’s stepsister, a young welfare mom named Shari (Darci Nalepa), is not only sexually involved with teddy bear Rich but also keeps making sexual overtures to Darrell, too. Shari’s infant son cries non-stop. Darrell hates the wailing baby, probably because he senses he was once equally neglected and unwanted.
Darrell’s awkward, less-confident but sweet sidekick Tim secretly has the hots for Darrell’s girlfriend Jenn (Kathryn Hines). Darrell doesn’t trust Jenn so they seem to break up weekly.
The characters have odd dreams. Shari simply wants to paint her house a color that will annoy her neighbors.
Darrell fondly recalls making a fort with a bedspread when he was a kid. Yet when he asks his ever-distracted mom about it she tells him, “You never really made that big an impression. The truth is I don’t recall that much about you. You’re on your own with the Kodak moments.”
LaBute’s name has become synonymous with controversy. His unsettling works about nasty young men behaving badly push so many buttons he’s often accused of being a misanthropic hack. But he’s definitely one of the most provocative playwrights to emerge in the past decade, a gifted observer of the dark side of life.
Some might say LaBute’s writing merely exposes meanness and ugliness”that his works are like turning over a board and watching creepy things scurry away. Yet we don’t understand his characters any better for having watched them for 90 minutes. Perhaps they’re not complicated enough to really move us or make us care about them, but I think that’s LaBute’s point. Young people like these often simply slip through the cracks.
Ben Alvey is a geeky clerk at a pet store who reveals a disturbing secret. Alyse Kittner is one of Darrell and Tim’s peers.
Bob Knuth designed a perfect set to make all the fast cuts between the multiple scenes happen smoothly. Set pieces roll on and off and reconfigure to provide new scenes. The dingy paneled living room at Darrell’s house looks especially right, complete with dirty smears behind the couch where people’s greasy heads have soiled the walls as they watched TV.
The believable fighting is well choreographed by Jen Albert.
Peter Storms designed the sound, which ranges from rock music to a realistic baby crying.
The stage manager is Lindley Gibbs.
There’s no intermission. The tension just seems to swell, like a well-made movie.