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Rebecca Gilman infuses her murderous characters with life

Wednesday, Feb 25 2004
When Rebecca Gilman premiered her first play, The Glory of Living, in 1996, it must have seemed a little behind the curve: The fashion for murderers-on-the-run had already peaked a couple of years before with the movie Natural Born Killers. Now, though, it plays like a '90s flashback, or like a Tarantino flick from a woman's point of view. Two dirt-poor Southern loners go on a long, heartless road trip looking for strangers to have sex with and then kill: brutal but simple. What makes it more than just a crime story is the attention Gilman lavishes on her characters.

An unstable trucker named Clint lures a 15-year-old girl away from her trailer-park home in Tennessee, where her mother gets by as a self-employed whore. The girl, Lisa, is jaded. She watches TV while her mom has sex behind a sheet dividing the room. "She all right?" Clint asks when they first meet, while Lisa tries to ignore her mother's groans. "She's OK," Lisa says flatly. "She's a screamer."

Soon Lisa and Clint are married, with two kids left behind at the trailer park while they roam the South in search of young and vulnerable girls. Lisa lures each victim into a motel room, where Clint rapes the girl or persuades her to participate in a threesome. Then Lisa injects her with Drano, or shoots her, or something. They prey on loners who seem destined -- in Lisa's eyes -- for abuse. "Wouldn't anybody even know they was gone," she says.

The play's power lies in the amount of sorrow and injustice that Gilman leaves unspoken. Lisa is a deadened, amoral creature, like the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," who kills because she has nothing better to do. Lisa's not malevolent; in fact, a twinge of conscience leads her to tip off the police. Clint is the real force of evil -- a wiry man with a coiled Southern accent who violently insists on indulging his vaguest whim. You sense that Lisa follows him just for a change of scenery. But he's careful to let her do the killing, which makes all the difference when the cops arrive. Act 2 shows Lisa moving through the court system to death row, while Clint reassembles his life.

Glory is a good play, not a great one; for stretches it feels like a road movie about crime and punishment, minus the Dostoevskian echoes. It would be nothing without a vivid Lisa, but Lauren English plays her with such a clear sense of paralyzed humanity that most of the superficialities fall away. Lisa seems to mistrust herself as much as she hates everyone else. "I ain't nothin' to look at," she tells Clint early on, though she is in fact sexy, and the arc of the play, traced by English's performance, shows the stunted growth of Lisa's self-esteem.

Michael Janes does strong work as Clint; he infuses his slight frame with an insinuating manner that sometimes explodes into violence. And Janna Sobel is outstanding as Carol, one of the victims. She sits on the motel bed with her lanky knees together, half hiding behind her hair, and answers questions in a shy, small voice. Carol seems a bit slow. When Clint comes on to her, she says, "Oh, y'all wanna do that?" and takes off her blouse. Later, Lisa shoots her in the head.

Other scenes in Act 2 work less well, especially interrogations that don't involve Lisa. But overall, Bill English (the actress' father) has directed a stark and stylish West Coast premiere. He and co-designer Andy Scrimger use slides and short movies for backdrops, to lend the show a sense of motion. The trailer park has '30s-era Chevys decaying in a field outside. When Clint and Lisa hit the road, a film of a country two-lane rushing by plays over rusty instrumentals by the Tin Hat Trio. One image even pans when Lisa walks from her motel room to a pay phone. The still images belong to Troy Paiva's "Lost America" series of blighted countrysides; they cast an eerie spell.

Glory is not just the West Coast premiere of Gilman's first play (Gilman has since written Spinning Into Butter and Blue Surge); it's also only the second show in a spacious new theater on Sutter Street, the Playhouse, just across from the Actors Theatre and a block east of the Lorraine Hansberry. Bill English has scheduled a full season there. The building used to be Sorosis Hall, named for a women's social and literary club that once rejected the actress Lotta Crabtree because she smoked cigars. In its new life the space should be less genteel, if Glory is any indication, but -- I hope -- more interesting.


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