Las Vegas Little Theatre’s opening night presentation of Steve Tesich’s 1989 drama “The Speed of Darkness,” in the Fischer Black Box, was like a diamond in the rough. At first the show felt tepid, awkwardly staged, and seemed under-rehearsed. It needed a bit more polish.
The fine cast perked up as tension in the narrative began to build, and by the time the explosive second act rolled around it was full steam ahead. Granted the text unfolds slowly so perhaps the initial, leisurely pace was the intention of Director David McKee. But despite the more smooth second half there was an occasional tentativeness to the performances and an unevenness between individual scenes throughout, and it felt like they needed a few more run-throughs to bring cohesiveness to the whole piece.
“Speed” is a weighty, metaphorical play of collective guilt about a damaged Vietnam War hero, his quaint nuclear family, his homeless war buddy, and a closet full of skeletons. Tesich follows in the footsteps of such playwrights as Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Miller and their tradition of passionate stories that revolve around a tragic familial secret or two.
“There was a family that lived here,” narrates young Eddie, played by the very funny Connor Haley, in a flash-forward monologue near the start of the play as he stands in the abandoned home of his childhood friend Mary, her father Joe, and her mother Anne. “Blood was spilled on the floor of this living room,” he says. And so the foreshadowing begins.
Smart high school senior Mary, portrayed with natural innocence by Isabella Rooks, rues her final year as only a teenager can, saying “It’s like waiting to die or something.” That doesn’t happen in a literal sense but a few devastating confessions from what she thought were her perfect parents will shatter her world, yet also make her stronger.
Joe, played with searing conviction by Jacob Moore, is an archetypal, loving family man who despite repressed war trauma seems to have achieved the American Dream. He’s an upstanding, respected contractor who built their home with his own two hands, but the cracks in the facade begin to show when he’s chosen South Dakota’s “Man of the Year.” Harboring guilt over his shady secrets he doesn’t believe he deserves the honor so he drinks, and his raging, Jekyll/Hyde type alter-ego is released on everyone in his path. It’s a difficult balance making such a contradictory character feel human, and Moore rises to the challenge in revealing Joe’s mercurial glory. He does better with the interior life of the bitter, violent Joe than with the outwardly happy family man, and he manages a measured, convincing arc during his climactic, confessional soliloquy.
Mom Anne is an underwritten part, but Melissa Riezler fleshes her out by quietly conveying an elegant, wistful quality when she listens and reacts expressively to everything she hears. She is maternal and protective, and when things are unraveling there’s a lovely scene between her and Joe where she asks him plaintively to remind her of what he said to her the first time they met. We definitely feel their connection.
Joe’s filthy, homeless war friend Lou, played gently by Michael Close, shows up to see Joe after a twenty year absence, and as a deus ex machina his arrival propels the plot into motion. He describes himself as “MIA,” or “Missing in America.” He has been following the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which he jokingly calls “Son of Wall,” around the country, and even got arrested for attempting to etch his name onto the original with a can opener. He doesn’t qualify to have his name on the wall because he’s alive, though he swears “I didn’t survive.”
With wide-open, shell-shocked eyes Close as Lou is like a ghost frozen in time in his torn-up camouflage jacket (nicely deconstructed by costume designer Jennifer McKee), and represents all the veterans forgotten by their country, along with nature and the passing of time. He has a humble, sweet soul, and doesn’t deserve his lot in life.
Sandy Stein’s sound design brings the 1960’s wartime-era alive with evocative movie sounds and the psychedelic music of Pink Floyd and the Doors. She uses heavy metal band Disturbed’s noisy version of the “Sounds of Silence” to show how hard it is to find peace of mind. Chris Davies’ set design feels anemic considering the house that Joe built is mentioned several times in the script. Its configuration of black flats with stark white window frames might be meant to evoke both the Memorial Wall and the American dream house with a white picket fence, but it could use some color and texture to make it more homey.
LVLT’s “The Speed of Darkness” will get better with each performance, and should resonate with civilians and veterans alike.