John Crutchfield’s new play Solstice begins with best friends Carlton and Eugene kicking the crap out of each other in an effort to make Carlton (Scott Fisher) cry, which he needs to do because his girlfriend has gone missing and because his life is pretty much a black hole of squalor and hopelessness. But, you know, funny. An opening brawl is the first daring stroke in an evening of daring strokes, and if the playwright doesn’t try to surpass that in sheer volatility, he does surpass it many times as the evening unfolds in depth, eloquence and sad wisdom.
Glenn Reed is superb as the understanding friend, Eugene, whose understanding is sorely tried by an evening of berserk emotion. Is there a character in literature named Eugene who is not put upon in some way? Carlton is several kinds of mess, needy and disgusting at once, and his wheedling insistence that Eugene spend the night with him makes us pity Eugene, until we realize that Carlton is also a true artist, a sort of blessed spirit, maybe, fighting for his life in an inimical world. Eugene is a sort of priest, then, and the fragile, beautiful deity he serves is on the brink of extinction. He half knows this, and if Eugene plays his part with reluctance, he plays it nearly to the end.
Lisa Smith is Sparky, the crack-whore waif from downstairs, who joins the boys while fleeing from an abusive pimp boyfriend, who shoots at them blindly through the floor boards. Sparky is the most lost of them all, a salacious imp, drug-crazed, gut-sick — an insatiable nympho who, in all the company available to her, cries out at feeling lonely, who in the space of a sentence can be a seducer and a false accuser and provocateur, and yet wonders why her life is so wrong, since she is nice to everybody. The very neighborhood is a dark presence, a villain which uses its inhabitants as tools of its villainy. Even the cops won’t come there.
I don’t want to leave an impression of somberness or heart-on-sleeve emotionality. Solstice is funny. It is tragic without somberness, moving without sentimentality. It’s squalid, but without a trace of self-pity. Its citizens are annihilated, and yet retain full humanity. Though it bristles with philosophical and moral issues, the play itself never points, never urges, never insists. It is in fact a miracle of decorum. It allows its characters to be fatally screwed up and sublime at once, and the list of playwrights who can do that is short indeed.
When a playwright enjoys multiple local productions, one benefit is that his audience gets to see him grow. With Solstice, Crutchfield stand before his audience — for the first time, I think — with every tool sharp and every gesture sure. I sense this in his language most of all. The poetry which his dialogue always had has become a poetry fully dramatic, fully at the service of the play, absolutely convincing and compelling down to the syllable. I was listening for false notes — I’m a critic, after all — and there were none. All is eloquence and — what an odd thing to say, given the violence of the situation — restraint, for while the drama might have pleaded and sobbed, it merely, cleanly presents. Solstice is, simply, masterful. Crutchfield has a voice now that can take him anywhere.
Normally I would advise a playwright not to direct his own play, but it seems to have turned out fine with Solstice. Mary Castellaneta’s sound design serves the action with subtle sureness. Magnetic Field’s acting is so invariably fine that it hardly bears mentioning, but I do mention it, to thank three fine actors for giving life to a very, very fine play.
Solstice is already sold-out several performances into the future, so call Julie Holladay-Carter at the box office and get your tickets now. Runs Thursdays through Sundays, through Feb. 4. Tickets available at http://themagneticfield.com/events.