(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Austin’s Vortex Theater is known for dynamic, political work that frequently addresses cutting-edge, ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. With the world premiere of playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s Terminus, playing through Feb 6, the theater company has also developed something of great permanence, a new play that is certain to have an extended life in the American theater.
Terminus is but the second work in a projected seven-play project, collectively titled The Attapulugus Elegies, which will tell the story of a small Appalachian mill town’s slow disappearance over the course of several decades. As such, Terminus is one part of a larger conversation regarding the history and (hopefully) present of Appalachia in the American landscape, a crucial conversation that is often overlooked amidst the panoply of today’s sensationalist political sound bites.
If Terminus is but a piece of a vaster whole, it is still a particularly meaty piece, dealing as it does with weighty issues of race, class, and sexuality amongst the socially blasted, economically depressed landscape of rural America. Vortex’s production, directed by Rudy Ramirez with crucial dramaturgical work (and assistant directing) by Gabrielle Randle, more than does justice to this complex, confrontational text.
Jennifer Underwood, as the increasingly senile Eller Freeman, serves as the dramatic center of the play, while scenes both in the present and in the past (thanks to her ghostly remembrances of deceased family members) unfold around her. Underwood is equal parts cranky, cantankerous, childlike, and frighteningly angry, providing a lit match ready to drop on the powder keg that is the play’s underlying racial and sexual politics.
The standout star of the production is the young Jacques Colimon, as Eller’s biracial grandson Jaybo. Played with an easy naturalism that makes him instantly endearing, Colimon’s Jaybo provides a parallel narrative to Eller’s, a contemporary look at bi-racial relations seen through the lens of his burgeoning relationship with a young drifter girl, Finch Finch, played with seductive, tomboyish charm and wit by Hayley Armstrong.
Although the scenes between Colimon and Armstrong crackle with chemistry, they do tend to drag at times, detracting from the central narrative of the dark, tragic revelations of Eller’s past. At times even these revelations drag a bit, as well, extending a moment well beyond its dramatic climax and thus weakening the emotional impact.
The rest of the talented cast help to tell Eller and Jaybo’s backstories in various ways, aided by the gorgeous and evocative work of the design team (particularly the set by Ann Marie Gordon, that manages to be both realistic and surreal at the same time, and the moody, atmospheric lighting by Patrick Anthony).
Terminus is a very good play, which with some judicious editing will become a great play; part of an important, groundbreaking cycle of American work that we can only hope will receive the widespread national audience it deserves.
“Terminus” continues through Feb. 6 at the Vortex. www.vortexrep.org