American Falls by Miki Johnson is a lovely and touching piece of writing.
It is a work about time and history, the history that was, the history that will be.
Seven characters from the small Idaho town of American Falls; A gregarious Billy, “Mound of Clouds,” a Native American tells us about his shoes that speak to him. Two buddies and their gal pal enjoy an afternoon drink at the local watering hole.
A man, pained to take his eyes off his reflection in a mirror, speaks to a child behind him. The child is curled over, silent.
An older woman drinks on a swing and reflects on her eleven miserable children.
And the wraith of a young woman explains to us why her suicide was the right step to take.
We soon come to realize the threat that exists on stage, and that all the stories, all the voices orbit about that small, still so silent, form of a child.
Think Spoon River Anthology, Our Town and American Horror Story.
Ms. Johnson has not given us the typical theatre fare. Except for the barroom scene there is no real interaction among the speakers on stage, so no conflict is generated; at least not in the usual sense.
The four points of reference, Ms. Johnson sets in the natural world, reflect the unfolding of the child’s fate and, in and of themselves, do not so much build the suspense as drop it upon us.
Each point of reference works it own fascination on the audience, but the separation serves to dilute the tension rather than tighten it.And at times the action of the piece feels like that sequence of Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; the one where Hedren’s character is shown following the flame in horror as it burns towards the gasoline in a series of isolated close shots.
The topics of what future we have and what hopes we may hold, are at the core of this play. A core I can’t say is really tapped. Except for the barroom quarter, which is somewhat ironic within the reality of the play, the writing is both strong and poetic.
Chris Fields directs. One of the last shows of Mr. Fields that this reviewer attended was Fugue.
It was written with the same multi-focused structure as American Falls, and sadly was not a high point for Mr. Fields in my opinion.
But if it were the structure that last time which overwhelmed Mr. Fields, he has certainly mastered it for American Falls.
All any playwright can hope for is a director and cast talented enough to accentuate the play’s strengths while squashing its weaknesses.
In this regard, Ms. Johnson has no reason to complain.
It is a beautiful staging. The Echo Theater Company attracts a high level of acting talent, and the cast here certainly meets that bar and then some.
Barbara Tarbuck, as the boozing Samantha, regales the audience with the story of her checkered past, until we begin to realize the link she forged in the chain of the child’s looming fate. Her character shows an appreciable depth in the writing that is missing in others.
Karl Herlinger as Samuel and Andrea Grano as Lisa are the most involved in the fashioning of that chain, and the two actors do solid work. Especially Mr. Herlinger whose character is perhaps the thinnest on stage.
Ms. Johnson saves her best writing for Billy, “Mound of Clouds” and is wise enough to open the show and wrap it up with him.
In the role, functioning like the Stage Manager in Our Town, Leandro Cano creates a full persona, one which engages the audience immediately. His is the strongest of the writing and the strongest performance.
Essentially what Ms. Johnson and Mr. Fields have provided us with is ambitious poetic fable, a parable which tries addressing the woes of our time.
As a play American Falls might be weak; however if you go in hopes of enjoying a beautifully staged lyrical work of theatre, well in that you won’t be disappointed.
American Falls on now through Oct. 18
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave. in Atwater
Ticket Information: (310) 307-3753
Official website: echotheatercompany.com.