Naomi Wallace, a 38-year-old Kentuckian, has just won a MacArthur "genius" grant of several hundred thousand. For what? Her play about the Great Plague in England, One Flea Spare, was as phony and smart-ass as its title -- a flea that gave audiences ants in their pants. Her film script Lawn Dogs, though well directed by John Duigan, was another flop. Now we have the annoyingly titled The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, a stage work reeking of poeticism and as affectedly artsy as a trestle can get.
This is a Depression-era play taking place in some unspecified hinterland. Dray, the father, is a downsized foundry worker. Gin, the mother, works in a glass factory whose unhinged owner has broken all the glass. As this simple countrywoman puts it, "Like we were standing on a lake of ice that was turning to fire right under our feet." Dray is more philosophical than poetic: "All my life I wanted to say something that mattered. I don't know why." And he waxes downright Hegelian: "I'm going to close my eyes . . . so no one will see us." Mind you, he says this to his son, Dalton, in a prison cell where no one can see them anyway.
Dalton, a youth of 15, falls for Pace, a girl almost 17 and an even more poetic sort. "Hear how quiet it is," she tells Dalton. "That's us. You and me. Waiting for our lives." She is obsessed with trains, especially the 7:10: "The engine herself's 153 tons. And not cotton, kid. Just cold, lip-smackin' steel. Imagine a kiss like that. Just imagine it." But she is also sinisterly interested in Dalton, whom she is persuading to play chicken by running the length of that trestle before the oncoming train gets to it. She sighs: "You're a good boy. A very good boy. It means someone, before it's too late, has got to break you in half. I guess it'll have to be me."
How does she propose to accomplish this? By tripping up Dalton as they run toward the train -- the way another chicken-playing boy, Brett, was bisected by the 7:10. But at least, unlike other kids around, she and Dalton will not be "like potatoes left in a box. . . . The potato thinks the dark is the dirt and starts to grow roots so it can survive . . . but the dark isn't the dirt and all it ends up sucking on is a fistful of air. And then it dies." Such poetry clearly merits grants that aren't small potatoes.
Even Chas, the dead Brett's father and now Dalton's jailer, tells Dalton about his son: "I thought he was the killing kind, a predator, like you. But turns out he was more the dying kind. Had a gap in his heart." Chas, by the way, used to beat Brett every morning at breakfast because he was too poor to give him any other kind of gift. When he had a headache and wasn't up to such giving, Brett would obligingly beat up on himself. Hard.
Wallace, too, makes it hard for the spectator. Thus in the last scene, the dead Pace and the doomed Dalton are simultaneously in his cell and at the trestle. As she says in a stage direction, "The Pace Dalton sees we cannot see, and the Pace we see is not the Pace Dalton sees." This is not entirely off the wall: The play the MacArthur people must have seen is not the one we see. Then factor in the further legerdemain of the director, Lisa Peterson, who has penniless people play Frisbee with their plates until they get smashed, shattering a cup for good measure.
Most exasperating, though, is that final scene, in which Pace takes Dalton verbally through all the phases of having sex with her from a plate-throwing distance. Without even looking at him or touching herself, she dictates all his masturbatory moves as he lies on, and comes all over, a cast-off dress of hers she has replaced with boy's clothes. We are never told for sure whether Dalton did her in, but people have killed for less.
Considering what is fobbed off on them, the actors do well: Michael Pitt (Dalton), Philip Godwin (Chas), Nancy Robinette (Gin), and David Chandler (Dray) are very fine; Alicia Goranson (Pace), remarkable. She gets the girl's Carson McCullers-ish ambiguities down to spine-chilling perfection. Riccardo Hernandez's scenery may be too minimalist, but Scott Zielinski's lighting is harshly right. Better yet is David Van Tiegham's music-cum-sound: When will this consummate artist with hundreds of such achievements to his credit receive his great, and greatly overdue, due?