To hell with peachy-keen

“If you give away the ending, we will kill you,” announced Jess Wells, director of the Immediate Theatre Project’s latest offering, Edward Albee’s The American Dream.

I tried a nervous giggle.

“I’m not joking,” Wells insisted.

Theater people sometimes scare me. So I’m not going to tell how this play ends — you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

I can, however, disclose how it begins.

In search of a catchphrase

Even without costumes, and rehearsed under the track lighting of an A-B Tech classroom with only plastic chairs as props, the play has an instant sense of the ludicrous. And of postmodernism. Of clean, spare lines devoid of emotion. Of people trapped inside a glass house.

It starts with a story: Mommy (played by C.J. Breland) tells Daddy (David Hopes) an inane anecdote about shopping for a hat. A slightly demented Grandma (Kay Galvin) comes in loaded down with carefully wrapped, though useless, boxes.

Though postmodern art came later than Albee’s play — he penned Dream around 1960 — the play immediately brings to mind such works as Jenny Holtzer’s 1990s installation “Protect,” a billboard high above the cityscape reading, “Protect me from what I want.”

In fact, this statement would be well-suited to hang above the play’s set, a sort of catchphrase for what it’s about.

“All of Albee’s plays are about warfare between people for the upper hand,” says Hopes.

“It’s about Albee’s perception of what the American public wants,” offers Kane Clawson, who plays Mrs. Barker.

Breland adds, “At the end of the 1950s — what his perception of what the American Dream was at that time.”

“He had a pretty negative view,” Clawson interjects.

But it’s that negative view that renders Albee’s work so relevant to now. Sure, it’s from the days of Ward and June, of Lucy and Ricky, but it’s so not dinner parties and cheery apple pie.

“This wouldn’t have been relevant in the late 1960s,” Clawson points out. Though less than a decade after the play’s inception, that was a time “when America was moving in some positive directions,” the actor opines.

She continues, “We’re not, now.”

“It’s kind of shockingly relevant to today’s political and moral climate,” says Instant Theatre Project co-founder Willie Repoley, conveying his disappointment with the recent election results and current national policies. “I think the ‘American dream’ and the ‘big lie’ are not all that dissimilar.”

He throws out this idea: “The American dream is that we always want more, even if we don’t know what it is.” As for the big lie: “In the last 40 years we’ve become accustomed to who’s lying and in what way now.”

Laughing to keep from crying

Albee himself took a stab at defining his hard-to-pinpoint script, describing the play as “an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of the complacency, cruelty, emasculation and vacuity” and “a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”

“Bleak themes,” admits Repoley. “The first time it was suggested as a possible show I thought, ‘Really? This is something people would go to see?'”

But, the company founder muses, “It was short and funny, and we didn’t want to do Glass Menagerie in December.”

Staged with a cast of seasoned actors — the youngest being relative newcomer Michael Ackerman in the (appropriate) role of Young Man — this Instant Theatre production has the chops needed to pull off Albee’s subtle brand humor. It’s not funny because people are slipping on banana peels, but it does possess that sort of cruel wit — laughing at the expense of others.

“The people in [Dream] would do anything to avoid pain,” Hopes reveals. “Albee, at that point, was heavily influenced by Beckett, [by] the absurd.” He cites an especially hilarious part with a dress — but I can’t tell you any more than that.

Threat of death and all.

“It’s a precursor to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and I think they’re very similar,” Clawson says.

And how about that other Americana-gone-awry hit, American Beauty? “On the surface, that’s a good comparison,” Wells says of the darkly satirical film. “The difference in what [director Sam] Menedez achieved was that one character rises above.” Granted, his rise above is a postmortem one. But that’s giving away the ending.

Albee clearly had a different motivation. “The humor in this, a lot of the time, comes from the absurd,” Repoley points out.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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