As the possible collapse of the debt ceiling sends the threats of another economic disaster hurtling around the bend, Eclipse Theatre Company's season devoted to the plays of Naomi Wallace continues with her elliptical portrait of small-town Appalachian life during the Great Depression.
"The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek" is where two teenagers, tomboyish Pace Creagan (played by Marissa Cowsill) and impressionable Dalton Chance (Matt Farabee), conduct a dangerous kinda-sorta courtship. The aptly named Pace wants Dalton to live up to his last name by running the trestle — set 100 feet above a dry creek bed, with no safety sides — before an oncoming freight train. Those who fail end up cut in half by the 153-ton beast, as one of their late classmates already has.
If you make it, you win a fleeting sense of victory over a grim town where jobs are scarce and Chance's father, Dray (Kevin Scott), an injured foundry worker, spends his days making shadow animals against the wall. "Your life will turn out just like you think it will — quick, dirty and cold," Pace tells Dalton. But since we already have a pretty good idea what happens to Pace early in the play, the mystery here isn't about whether or not the two will make the potentially deadly run.
Rather, Wallace focuses on the need for physical and psychic connection as the bridge between isolated souls. Chance's mother, Gin (Cindy Marker), has lost the passionate bond that brought her together with Dray — they communicate now by tossing a dinner plate back and forth while they speak. She tries to find meaning in a workers' movement to reopen the town's shuttered plate-glass factory. The job Gin has — painting plates in another factory — leaves her hands a ghostly hue of blue. Marker's monologue about the beauty and horror of her probably-toxic hands makes it clear that economic survival has cost Gin dearly.
Director Jonathan Berry has shown a deft gift in the past with character-rich stories of quiet desperation, most notably with the plays of British writer Simon Stephens. But at points, he seems flummoxed as to how to infuse Wallace's image-rich but somewhat airless tale with the same sense of urgency Pace has for running the bridge. His cast, particularly Cowsill's defiant Pace, Farabee's yearning Dalton and Marker's bowed-but-not-beaten Gin, all have moments here that shine a poignant light in the dark sadness surrounding the characters. But Wallace's occasional injections of clumsy, off-the-shelf agit-prop, as when Dalton observes "My country loves me — that's why it's killing me," tend to deflate the delicate tensions of the tale, which is already undercut by our knowing the general outlines of what will happen early on.
Joe Schermoly's claustrophobic and rust-stained under-the-trestle set, Lee Keenan's sepia-toned lights and Josh Horvath's haunting sound design create a rich atmosphere. But like the characters in Wallace's play, one feels as if there's something more compelling that is not fully tangible here — instead, it's waiting just beyond the edges of her metaphor-laden vehicle