There were many moments in Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Poe Lick Creek, as interpreted by Director Jodi Kanter at The George Washington University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, when I inwardly and involuntarily went “wow”—beginning as soon as I saw the set. Scenic Designer Shirong Gu, a GW grad student, has erected on the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre stage the girdered footing of the titular trestle. It towers powerfully up into the fly space, looming in forced perspective over all the action, making people below it seem puny, just as in Wallace’s script it is a haunting and taunting presence in the lives of local teens.
The play is set in rural United States during the hardscrabble times of the Depression. Parents are being laid off from work; their children face futures with no promise. Young people have nothing to look forward to except the 7:10 train as it courses across the trestle. They have turned that train’s timetable into a game, the rules of which are harsh: As the train approaches, run across the trestle toward it and try to get to the other side alive. There is no safety space beside the tracks, no creek below to break one’s fall. It’s run for your life or die.
The story begins as a slight, dorky 15-year-old, Dalton (played by Jordan Feiner with a pained sensitivity that reminded me of Peter MacNicol in Sophie’s Choice), is being goaded to play chicken with an oncoming steam engine by a 17-year-old tomboy named Pace, who is taller and bigger (and, in Shira Hereld’s nuanced performance, a sexually aggressive bully who is wrestling with her longing to be desired). The badinage between them is scripted as a role-reversal back-and-forth that vacillates between I-hate-you/I-want-you, go-fuck-yourself/fuck-me. Wallace’s poetic play is full of such push/pull dances of conflicted ambiguity, often with twisty nonsequitur leaps. It is a credit to Feiner and Hereld that they have found emotional through lines to embody all their character’s jarring psychological complexities yet come across with credible continuity.
Wallace has handed a similar acting challenge to three other roles, all of which are written as older but in this student production are played by agemates of the actors playing Dalton and Pace. Two are Dalton’s parents, Gin (Meghan Bernstein), a low-paid worker in a glass factory where chemicals have turned her hands blue, and Dray (Colton Timmerman), who has become pathetic in perpetual joblessness. Bernstein and Timmerman avoid the kind of caricature one commonly sees when actors play characters decades older than themselves. What Bernstein and Timmerman do instead, with emotional maturity that greatly impressed me, is stay true to Wallace’s script, with all its revealing and concealing convolutions—the terrible tension, for instance, in the fact that depression-era desperation has despoiled Gin and Dray’s passion for each other. Under Kanter’s insightful direction, the erotic push/pull between Dalton and Pace can be seen as mirrored in the erotic push/pull between Gin and Dray—such that what’s so fascinating in Wallace’s rendering of gender, particularly her depiction of its shifting, role-rearranging power dynamics, becomes enthralling to listen to and watch be played out across generations. And thus does Wallace’s ending—a sexually charged role-reversal scene between Dalton and Pace—become all the more astounding and touching.
A fifth character is Chas (Josh Bierman), the father of a teenage son who, goaded into the deadly game by Pace, was killed by a train atop the trestle when he tripped. By a slight contrivance of convenience on Wallace’s part, Chas also happens to have a job as warden in the small town jail, where in the nonlinear unfolding of the play Dalton is imprisoned for killing Pace. We learn over the course of two acts what really happened and why, which piques curiosity and sustains pathos as much like a potboiler as a tragedy, so I’ll not spoil the story by saying more. But pay attention to Bierman’s performance. He has some amazing moments during what are in effect arias that Wallace has composed for the character. Something that Bierman brought to the role made me believe intermittently an old soul was right there on stage.
All the conflict in the language turns to corollary combat now and then, and Fight Director Casey Kaleba has choreographed this agile cast terrifically. Costume Designer Sydney Moore has captured the period and the poverty precisely. Lighting Designer Carl Gudenius effectively takes us into the confines of a prison, beneath a speeding train, up onto the tracks, and elsewhere—even in the omnipresence of Gu’s massive trestle (a set that ought to win some prize). And Sound Designer Natalie Petruch intersperses the most enchanting sound of wind chimes, a perfect evocation of the play’s time shifts and poetry.
Even as the young characters in The George Washington University’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek race against time in the face of a train, audiences dare not dawdle if they wish to catch this very special theater experience as it speeds through town this weekend only.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek plays through this Sunday, February 22, 2015, at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.