The Dueling Critics get tense over 'The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek'

August 26, 2011

JONATHAN: The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek is, arguably, the best-known play by Naomi Wallace, seemingly accessible with its Depression-Era tale of two needy and dangerously-drawn together adolescents. But as a work of poetic realism, it may be a bit more difficult to fathom than it seems at first blush. The trestle of the title, passing over a symbolically dry creek, is where local teens sometimes play chicken by outrunning the evening train. A boy was killed doing just that several years back, and now 15 year old Dalton is being groomed for an attempt by 17 year old Pace, a sexually aware but virginal temptress who lured the first boy to his death. An emotional devil's advocate drawn to dares and violence, she connects easily with the repressed boy.

KELLY: It's amazing that you could summarize the play so expeditiously, Jonathan, given how little of what appears onstage has to do with the plot. As you say, realism is only a torn garment thrown over a play whose body is a debate about the meaning of courage and masculinity. What makes Trestle so intriguing is playwright Wallace's decision to locate those characteristics in her female characters, while rendering her male characters impotent. Dalton is seemingly helpless in the face of Pace's demands, whether to race the train or to make love to her. Dalton's father, out of a job when his factory closed, literally sits in his room all day making shadow pictures on the wall, while his mother goes out to help revive the factory and transform it into a worker-owned cooperative. Wallace's point--one of them, at least--seems to be that men are completely adrift without work to anchor their identities, while women are more adaptable, deriving their identities from whatever environment they face. You know Wallace's work better than I do--am I reading her feminist message correctly?

JONATHAN: I summarized the play expeditiously because I am a reporter, Kelly, and I know how to report what I see and hear. As for your reading of the feminist message, I believe you've actually come up with a powerful and not-inappropriate interpretation of the play. It's significant that the only one of the show's three male characters who demonstrates any vigor is the jailer--a man with a job--and coincidentally the father of the dead boy. I would disagree with you only to the extent that the intense focus of the play on the adolescents--Dalton and Pace--suggests that Wallace wants to comment on something crucial and particular to that stage of life vs.courage and masculinity at various stages of life. But I confess I'm mystified by my own surmise as Wallace doesn't show us or tell us enough about either of the kids for us to figure out why they are the way they are. There's not much exposition in the play. The best I can figure is that emotional repression characterizes the Great Depression Era and rural America--where the play is set--a time and place of dreams delayed, deferred and denied. But, hey, Kelly, that's such a cliche! How can I suggest that Wallace would latch on to it?

KELLY: I understood the adolescents to be merely extreme versions of the adults: hopeless, given to futile acts because there are no other kind, confused about both sexual relations and relations between the sexes. Although the play is set in the Depression and the train could be a metaphor for a destructive economy, I don't think it is. Sometimes, as Sigmund Drama Critic must surely have said, a setting is only a setting. Jonathan Berry's direction emphasizes the explosive tension which surrounds everything the young not-lovers do, whether racing a train or experimenting with sex, and the performances of Matt Farabee and Marissa Cowsill as Dalton and Pace are a terrific meeting of powder and fire. In their hands, the play mostly bypasses the mind and goes straight for the crotch.  

JONATHAN: Kelly, I can't believe you actually set me up to write, "Perhaps it bypasses YOUR mind, tiny as it is." I think the dry creek bed, not the train, is the metaphor for a destructive economy. I agree with you that Farabee--a Chicago newcomer--and Cowsill make the play crackle, and I also liked Cindy Marker as Dalton's put-upon mother. She did a lot with a modestly-written part. Berry's direction captures the darkly elegiac tone inherent in a work which is as much tone poem as drama. I think it's smart that his actors mostly eschew rural or regional accents so audiences do not think, "Oh, Appalachia" or some such. The physical production deserves a shout-out, too, for being effective rather than fancy. Rachel Lambert's costumes feature band-collared shirts and lots of linen and cottons, while Joe Schermoly's set suggests the power and size of the trestle, surrounded by empty, woodsy countryside. But: I keep coming back to Dalton and the shame and guilt that appear to be driving him to unnecessary self-sacrifice. Have you and I dismissed the tragedy here which may be Wallace's real point?

KELLY: Jonathan, my love, I live to set up your cheap shots. In return, though, you have to allow me to observe that from Wallace's point of view, Dalton's sacrifice is not unnecessary: he betrayed Pace by refusing to look at her while she was running across the tracks. That may sound ridiculous to someone who hasn't yet seen the play, but its script is studded with pleas from the women to the men: "Touch me!  Look at me!"  None of the men, self-absorbed and nonfunctional as they are, will or can respond. Dalton, however pointlessly, punishes himself in their stead.  No wonder the post-show music is the anti-hymn "Live and die and gone"--there's crucifixion here but no redemption.

Our interpretations make this delicate piece sound like heavy going, when it's not at all. The beautiful language (you can tell Wallace began her career as a poet) and the elliptical construction make The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek a lovely, if puzzling, evening in the theater. The play runs through Labor Day at the Greenhouse on Lincoln Avenue just south of Fullerton.