Taking aim at a topic as loaded as the revolver with which its characters take turns menacing one another, Buddy Farmer’s “Alabama Baggage” centers on the traumatic scars of childhood sexual abuse. The drama’s first full staging at Theatre Asylum falls short of its serious intentions, however, with the need for further development still evident.
A good starting place for rework would be to clarify and fully commit to those intentions. At present, the play teeters awkwardly between realistic exploration of survivor psychology and over-the-top Southern Gothic revenge thriller.
Set in a Kentucky cemetery in the dead of night, the action brings long-buried secrets to light as local sheriff Ben (Will Blagrove) discovers a stranger from Alabama named Lucas (Ashley McGee) desecrating the grave of a supposed pillar of the community, a man who turns out to have been a serial predator who abused them both when they were adolescents.
Particularly contrived plot twists enable the victims to confront their attacker, Hal (John Combs), and then arbitrarily vacillate between seeking vengeance or granting forgiveness.
Director Paul Messinger obtains mixed results from his cast. Blagrove’s Ben is the standout performance, aching with emotional complexity and ambivalence steeped in guilt, shame and fear. Playwright Farmer, a self-disclosed sexual abuse victim, has his share of demons to purge, and the play’s sense of rage isn’t subtle — the frequency with which characters relieve themselves on Hal’s grave prompts Ben to observe that the departed “shoulda had a urinal instead of a tombstone.”
Unfortunately, McGee’s Lucas rarely delivers more than flat line readings, while the supporting characters (supplied capably enough by Jody Fasanella and William Jones) are little more than plot devices.
The pivotal character of predator Hal is where a clearer choice is needed most. Is his evil a personification of self-pitying banality or masterful manipulation? In its present form the play tries too hard to have it both ways.
“Alabama Baggage,” Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 14. $25. (323) 960-7711 or www.plays411.com/baggage. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.