KPBS AIRDATE: April 6, 1994 >
“Dirt” can just slip through your fingers. You’d think that playwright Bruce Gooch was on terra firma, with a rock-solid story about the connection between a father, a son and the land. That’s a firm foundation for high expectations, but all we get is a sand castle, a gritty little fantasy that washes away before our eyes.
The king in this castle is veteran actor James Whitmore. He breathes life — or more aptly, wheezes, sputters and spits — into this wispy, melodramatic play, where his is the only well-etched character. He is Sonny Hardman, a crusty old coot who’s worked his farm for 75 years. But now he’s wafting in and out of reality as his mind slowly yields to Alzheimer’s disease. He buried his wife last year. He sold off all the cattle, shot the last wounded dog. There’s nobody left when his estranged son Zac strides over the hillock.
Zac “don’t know nothin’, according to his father. Certainly nothin’ about this land. And not much about his father’s ebbing mind, either. But he’s supposed to know an awful lot about women. This he gets to prove when Ellie, the local cafe waitress, drops by to see why Sonny hasn’t been in for his cherry pie. Zac and Ellie sniff around each other like a couple of stray dogs. He immediately shows that he knows every inch of this woman’s body, every minute of her life. He’s supposed to be a trucker, a VietNam vet with a poet’s heart, but we just don’t buy it.
John Dennis Johnston is a bit too refined for the trucker part. But he does a credible job with a pretty incredible character. As rough as his father, and often as monosyllabic, Zac suddenly waxes excessively lyrical about the land in a second-act speech no one would utter or believe. Ellie is another character we don’t know from a hill of beans. She’s the worn-out waitress with the heart of gold, but she’s 2-D cardboard, not 14Karat. Ellie comes to understand Zac and Sonny, Zac comes to terms with the land and with his father, and, movie-of-the week-style, everything comes together not a millisecond too soon.
There’s a beautiful juxtaposition of plays in Balboa Park right now. The magnificent “Jar the Floor,” at the Cassius Carter, takes a deep, gut-wrenching look at mothers and daughters. And next door at the Globe, there’s “Dirt,” which should make you ache for the turn in this father-son relationship, but instead it wallows in sentimentality and barely touches any real emotion.
Andrew J. Traister does a fine job with direction, and the actors are really trying. In all his craggy, droopy-drawered, bowlegged glory, Whitmore is a wonder, and well worth the trip. Likewise Ralph Funicello’s dirt-strewn backyard set, magnificently lit by Robert Peterson. There’s a whole lot of sound and fury onstage — animals, birds, a thunderstorm– and except for the New Age, Windham Hill-type piano tinkling that opens and closes the show, the sound design is superbly evocative.
All the seeds of success are well sown, but sadly, this “Dirt” seems arid.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.