Onto a landscape of food stamps, broken dreams, and Walmarts, director and playwright William Dean Leary has created an indelible portrait of life in rural America. Leary’s Midnight Cigarette, now in performance at the Greenbelt Arts Center through September 24, is an ode to the forsaken working class and a dramatic jewel.
The play takes its time to unfold. In the 40-plus-minute opening scene, we saw the histories of two lovers, a young widow, Christine, and her beau, Garth, as they frolic and talk in Christine’s bedroom. Christine’s past life is a study in family dysfunction: mom was an alcoholic, dad a miser. Christine is a woman tortured by the memory of her late husband, Jack. Garth has emotional ghosts of his own, which prove to be detrimental to Christine as the play progresses. As played by Kathy Ohlhaber and Matt Baughman, Christine and Garth are two fully-realized everyday people.
Midnight Cigarette paraded a series of imperfect characters onto its stage, covered in psychological warts. As Leary put it, “The lives portrayed onstage are very much like those I knew growing up, and I wanted to give an accurate portrayal of my own memories… I don’t believe in painting over language, situations, or striving for political correctness when to do so would be a disservice to the audience.” (The show features some rough language and nudity.)
The characters brought to life the same kind of people written about in author J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. One of the most interesting characters to watch was oversexed, Trump-supporting, mouthy Pam, who believed unsavory things about former President Obama and “moose people” aka Muslims. Elizabeth A. Weiss imbued Pam with the personality of an immature man-stealer looking for a way to escape her small town.
Dwayne Allen played Christine’s country music star brother with a mixture of big-man-on-campus assuredness and angst. His reactions to his sister’s unsavory lifestyle produced some of the finest moments in the show.
Leary-regular Susan L. Smithers brought wisdom and compassion to her role as bar owner Brenda. Brigid Lally portrayed wannabe country singer Tanya, and John Osborn played the bearded barfly Conway. Ultimately Ohlhaber and Baughman, in their tour-de-force argument scene in Pam’s bar, proved to produce the pinnacle of performance in the show.
This was easily Leary’s best directing effort yet. The performances and energy were perfect throughout. The cues were not only picked up, but seamless to a point of creating genuine-sounding dialog. I loved the stage business of Brenda and Tanya shelling peas at a table. I adored Leary’s set design, which included a wall of bar memorabilia, including a ram’s head skull, myriad liquor bottles, and whimsical bar signs. Leary-regulars Dannielle Beitzell, who designed costumes, and Stephen Beitzell, who ran light and sound, were excellent. I liked the original songs of playwright Stephen Geddes, whose Memories & Legends Leary directed last year. Despite its length – the first act is one hour and 50 minutes alone – Midnight Cigarette is a stage gem which is deserving of any awards it picks up.
Running Time: Three hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Midnight Cigarette plays through September 24, 2017, at Wolf Pack Theatre Company performing at Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 441-8700, or purchase them online.