|Some realistic plays achieve
disturbing impact by dealing with genuine love and sympathy issues which formerly
would have been dismissed as sensationalism. One of these is "Pastures of
Plenty" by Colin Hodges, a Romeo-and-Juliet type love story between a brother
and sister. This remarkable first play will likely be remembered as the emergence
of a splendid new dramatist whose sagacity burns with an extraordinary sense
of truth. La MaMa presents the work, in association with River Arts Rep, June
14 to July 1 in its second-floor Club at 74A East Fourth Street.
The play was inspired partly by John Ford's "'Tis a Pity She's a Whore"
(1624) and partly by a 1999 news story in which a brother and sister in Oklahoma
(Alan and Patty Muth) were sentenced to hard labor for incest. In the play, Jesse,
33, and Junie Lee, 18, are siblings who had been adopted by different families
in the Southwest. When they meet for the first time, they find themselves gripped
by a sudden and improbable passion. Jesse's marriage is quickly wrecked, Junie
conceives a baby almost immediately and the societal battle lines are drawn.
The legal system intercedes and despite repeated separations by the authorities,
the siblings' hot love affair refuses to cool. Their first child is seized by
the state and put in foster care. To hold onto their second child, they become
fugitives in Jesse's long-haul truck. From there the play becomes part romance,
part road movie: a succession of poignant scenes depicting days of fast food
joints, nights huddled in Jesse's cab watching Elvis movies, and the powers of
the State in hot pursuit.
Above all, the couple are tortured by the forced removal of their children. Prompted
by her social worker, Junie undergoes tubal ligation to appease the court. This
penance notwithstanding, the play ends tragically, with the lovers being sentenced
to hard time and the loss of their children. In an ultimate testimony to their
fidelity, the social worker relates how, separated by incarceration, they write
each other ornate, saccharine-sweet love letters, festooned with ruby red crayon
hearts and a multitude of X's and O's.
"Pastures of Plenty" created praise and shock with its first reading
at Soho Rep, unsettling the audience with its honest depiction of Jessie and
Junie's intense sexual and emotional relationship. Reading it, you are ashamed
to be won over by their devotion. The play not only challenges preconceived notions
of love and beauty, it also defends the value of loyalty. It is dangerous because
it cannot be dismissed--like Ford's classic play or today's reality TV--for flaunting
degenerate sensuality before a jaded public for whom ordinary passions have well-neigh
lost their savor.
The playwright testifies to the conflicts engendered by this play: "I thought
I'd get more sympathetic to Junie and Jesse as I went along, but I didn't. If
we can accept this taboo just because their love was beautiful, what does it do
to our moral foundation?" The chink in the law, he reminds us, is that it
was mostly developed to prevent father-daughter incest. He adds, the social welfare
system professes to protect children, but science assures us that the genetic
risk from fraternal incest is minimal. So when legal remedies are applied disproportionately,
like the hard incarceration (eight years for Jesse, five for Junie) in this play,
it points out an eternal theme: the greatest barrier to love is being different
when others are very powerful.
Remarkably, the 26-year old playwright has crafted a work of this complexity
and power using only three characters: Jesse, Junie and a Social Worker (who
occasionally speaks for the State and fulfills the structural role of a Greek
Chorus). The text alternates amid solid realism, idiomatic language of the American
Southwest, and more poetic passages in which the characters describe, in poignant
metaphors, the desperate passion of their brief times together or their fleeting
dreams for a normal life. Hodges was primarily a director prior to writing "Pastures
of Plenty." Since then, he has completed two more plays. "The Mercy
Seat," about an ex-con struggling to re-invent himself as a Lakota Indian,
and "Mostly Mother in the Land of Opportunity," about violence over
the nonpayment of bills and a family's attempt to return to society. Hodges' directing
career has also thrived on themes of alienation. At Tribeca Playhouse, he directed
Shepard's "The Geography of a Horse Dreamer" and at Soho Rep, he directed
"The Crackwalker" by Judith Thompson, a play about child abuse among
working-class Canadians. He is a graduate of the theater program at Fordham University.
In high school, he was a writing protégé of novelist Wally Lamb
("She's Come Undone," "I Know This Much is True"). He is an
active member of the writer/director's lab at Soho Rep. The production comes to
La MaMa at the urging of Lawrence Sacharow, a formative director ("The Concept"
and others at La MaMa, "Three Tall Women" at Vineyard and Prominade
Theater), Chairman of Theater at Fordham University and Artistic Director of
River Arts Rep.
Jesse is played by Myk Watford, known for his performances in Broadway's "The
Gathering" (Jewish Rep, Cort Theater), the films "Forever Mine"
and "Spiderman," and the play "Ana Darko" at MCC. He has also
appeared in major roles in TV's "Third Watch," "Law and Order"
and "The Guiding Light." Junie Lee is played by Jenna Jolley, who previously
worked with Colin Hodges in "Crackwalker" at Soho Rep and has appeared
in a number of independent films. The social worker is played by Eva Patton, whose
La MaMa credits include Jean Harlow in "The Beard" by Michael McClure,
directed by Lawrence Sacharow, "The Valley of Iao" by Lee Nagrin and
"Harry and the Cannibals" by Susan Mosakowski.
Lighting design is by Andy Hill and costume design is by Bobby Tilly.