The opening scene shows great promise. We witness a tense late night kidnapping taking place by flashlight. A tiny baby is being stolen from the second story of a laboratory building. But within a matter of minutes the blend of corn-pone comedy and scary religious fervor called “Tent Meeting” unravels into a tedious mess.
During the first few scenes I kept wondering, “How could someone write a play like this?” But by the second act I asked myself, “Why on earth would a theater company produce a play like this?” The line between cutting edge and over-the-edge apparently is a thin one. Two minutes of this material might function as a lame but passable skit on “Saturday Night Live.” Watching it for two hours, however, is like experiencing root canal without anesthetics.
Technically this show is fine. The acting–there are only three roles–is strong, the claustrophobic set works perfectly, the pacing and direction are smooth and solid. I’ll admit the production has lots of raw energy. But the script is awful. For starters, this drama is being billed as a dark comedy but it’s rarely even amusing.
“Tent Meeting” at Circle Theatre never makes up its mind whether it’s a Hee Haw, good ol’ boy wannabe farce-making simple-minded rustics the butt of relentless rube jokes, or a dysfunctional trailer trash family drama exposing the perils of pious living, or a fright night shock fest complete with bizarre supernatural effects. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this 1985 drama the reason is simple: it’s pretty dreadful.
I was perplexed as to how or why a show like this ever happened in the first place. Then I discovered that the three playwrights–Rebecca Wackler, Larry Larson, and Levi Lee–not only wrote the thing but also played the only three roles in its debut production. Perhaps that might have been amusing, witnessing the folks who created these dim-witted characters bringing them to life. It’s definitely what you’d call an “actors piece” in which performers get to carry on like crazy. But there have been very few productions of the show since then. That also speaks volumes.
Most of the plot, such as it is, takes place in a cramped trailer complete with wheels. It’s 1946 and a Bible-thumping redneck revivalist, Ed Tarbox (Joseph E. Hudson), is fleeing to Saskatchewan with his young son Darrell, a World War II hero, and his daughter Becky Ann, who has given birth to an infant so hideously deformed they aren’t even sure of its sex. The baby’s missing most of its facial features and has no recognizable genitalia. There’s an added twist: is the pious preacher the father of his own grandchild?
The reverend and his offspring kidnap the malformed newborn from an Arkansas laboratory where it’s undergoing scientific examination. Tarbox is convinced the infant is the new messiah and names it Jesus O. Tarbox. The little family is constantly dodging the law as they head up to the “Promised Land” in Canada in search of souls to save. Along the way they receive mysterious typed messages “from the Lord.”
Rev. Ed Tarbox is just plain mean-spirited, dominating and brutalizing his son and daughter every chance he gets. Ross Travis is quite strong playing the young vet with his war medal pinned on his undershirt. Becky Ann, the hillbilly Madonna who gave birth to the mysterious child, is chillingly played by Katherine Banks.
Director Chris Arnold keeps the show briskly paced yet the whole thing quickly runs out of steam.
The show builds into a couple big scenes, including an actual revival and a baptism. But I get the creeps just remembering it.