Land's End is full of the disenfranchised.

Tales of Woe 

Land's End is full of the disenfranchised.

Somewhere between a ridge and a valley of the Smoky Mountains sits an expanse of earth called Land's End. Its people are mostly poor and prone to trouble with the law. Think American Hollow, the Rory Kennedy documentary about an extended family of misfits and miscreants, and infuse what was already hard to believe with a shot of bitters. You get close to Gorilla Theatre's varyingly successful Land's End by Gary Carden.

Carden's script won Gorilla's 1997 Dramatist Festival but only now is seeing a fully staged production. Carden looks through a telescope at both the geography and sociology of Land's End and finds three stories to tell of three very different people who share the dubious status of being disenfranchised.

The first act takes all of 15 minutes. In it Stuart Rider (new to Kansas City and appearing with Gorilla courtesy of Actors' Equity) is Coy, a gritty yet handsome Greg Kinnear lookalike who's been incarcerated for a death that results from an act of kindness: Someone who was at death's door wanted to see Land's End one more time and happened to expire while in Coy's company. The case against him is weak, especially after hearing how he sincerely thought he was doing the victim a favor. Rider is fairly effective at conveying the prisoner's confusion about the law's interpretation of his generosity.

When this brief opening monologue is followed by an intermission and set change that were just as long, feelings of irritation begin to win out over interest. This is no way to engage an audience; if the lengthy pause is due to the change of scenery, then the crew should rethink the scenery. All Coy's scene needs is the hint of a cell -- two vertical bars laced with two horizontal ones. It is a curious miscalculation that could send less patient patrons running for the door.

As the second act opens, it is initially clear that things aren't improving. Nancycaroline Cubine and Nadine Berry, two actors who couldn't look more dissimilar, play one character. Her name is Nance Dude, and the scene opens in her twilight years, a period of life that is, as evidenced here, difficult to pull off when the actors are much younger. Cubine plays her as a woman with loose dentures, drooling out dialogue rather than speaking it, and Berry takes on a silly shuffle that conveys nothing but superficial acting.

The writing gets stronger and so do the actors as they begin to strip away layers of clothing in an act that serves to propel the clock backward. After a brief stop in middle age, Nance Dude is seen as a teenager around the time of the Civil War. Her story -- which also ends with a death and an imprisonment -- isn't half as compelling as that in the first act. What made it at all watchable was the quirk of having one character played by two people; it's like an Alan Ayckbourne script set in Appalachia.

The third act is by far the strongest, aided in no small measure by Tyler Miller's sure performance. He plays Jesse Racer, a modern descendant of proud Indians who uses his status just as tourists use him. He spends his days in a touristy section of Land's End posed in fake Indian gear. Next to him is a sign, "Get your photo with a real Indian chief -- $5.00"; so many gullible tourists do that, he makes a living.

Carden's writing here is admirably rich. He manages to discuss racism while commenting on white Americans' transparent efforts to soak up ethnicity. In Jesse's case, he's more the happy beneficiary than the victim, as countless Sarah Lawrence graduate students come to the region to allegedly finish their theses and end up with extra credit culled from sex at the local Holiday Inn. It's one way to get in touch with the Indian inside of them.

Miller's performance ranges from being amused by the ridiculous tourists snatching up "genuine Indian artifacts" plainly stamped "Made in Taiwan" to being defensive about ghettoizing his ancestry. Miller may not have a lot of Native American blood or features, but he certainly knows Jesse Racer.

Technically, the show is pedestrian. Lighting designer Tim Cushing hasn't designed anything, really; red, white, and amber lights come up and fade out just because the equipment is there. There's never any connection to what's being said on the stage. And several sound cues come from the same reasoning. It's like someone found a sound effects CD that would come in handy; when the actors mention wind, play the wind track.

The direction by Miller and Paula Acconcia occasionally is as obvious, where lines seem to always require a corresponding gesture. It's the fault of not trusting the words to carry their own weight. But writing as good as the third act could take even a lousy actor quite a distance.


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