How many times has a mother been frustrated with trying to get her small son to eat a sandwich? And how many times has a son been upset by being forced to eat something he didn’t want? Billions of times, or trillions? But usually, the encounter doesn’t conclude with mom shooting her tyke dead and then complaining about getting no respect.
In Harm’s Way, now at convergence-continuum theater, we are plunged into the distorted world of playwright Mac Wellman, a world where common aspects of our lives—violence, con games, dead Presidents—appear as if reflected in a fun house mirror. And then you realize, maybe this view isn’t so distorted after all.
The central character Santouche (a name that is a compressed version of the French phrase meaning “no touch”), winds up touching plenty of people, with bullets from his ever-present gun. After killing the aforementioned mom (who gave him no respect) he goes on a killing spree through several disconnected scenes until he ultimately offs the person closest to him, his evocatively named girlfriend Isle of Mercy. Again, no respect.
Some in the cast are more adept at dealing with this challenging material than others. Robert Branch creates distinctive characters as the young son and Crowsfoot, a carny con artist with two distinct sides to his personality. And Gideon Lorete, although lacking precise diction at times, channels the wacky energy that Wellman plays require. Hillary Wheelock as Isle and Carrie Williams as By Way of Being Hidden (yes, that’s her name) also convey a haunted, hunted aura.
In the central role of Santouche, Brian Westerley certainly has the look and physique to inhabit this fearsome role. But he never truly dominates the stage as he should, and his line readings tend to just be flat when they should ripple with tension, or dread. Or something. Without a more risk-taking performance, Santouche oddly fades into the background. And the contrast—when he suddenly speaks with Victorian rectitude to President McKinley (who is trying to get President Grover Cleveland to bury him alive)—doesn’t have the snap it should.
Director Clyde Simon clearly adores Wellman’s plays, having staged many of them, and he has a well-tuned sense of the absurdity at work. And the three-person band/chorus adds some pungent musical touches, including notes from a musical saw. But this one-hour play would be even more effective if he pushed some of the performers out of their comfort zones. Nobody, including the actors, should be comfortable in a Mac Wellman play.
Through April 15, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org