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With all of that, one wants it to be good. Its material has impact and a genuine foundation. The passions carried by people weighing short term gain against long term preservation, arguing the debate over restrictions and who has rights to water or land, and wrestling with a deep resistance to the realities of climate change are elemental for us here in California. One trip up the I-5 will tell you that. So, what goes awry?
First, the choice of setting is picturesque, but has some basic issues. Most especially, in this open setting it is essential for the performers to wear mics in order to be heard, however because there is a building between the “booth” controlling the mics and some of the performers occasionally, it is difficult to set a levels for the mics (often far too hot) or even to have a consistent signal at all. This becomes a major distraction at often pivotal moments in the play.
Second, the play slips into repetitive patterns. Because it is taken from interviews – a static moment in people’s lives – there is not a whole lot of growth among the characters, and when it does come suddenly toward the end it seems tacked on. Still, there are important things for us city folk to hear about life in a rural valley imperiled by drought.
Connor has come home from San Francisco to the ranch where she grew up, after a nasty divorce and feeling a general sense of failure. She hopes everything will be the same as when she left, but fire and drought have underscored community tensions. The locals, from the state employee evaluating realities, to ranchers desperate to preserve their way of life, to Native Americans dependent on leaving scarce resources untouched, are ranged against each other. A cascade of events as the play ends test characters’ belief and – in Connor’s case, at least – sanity.
The cast proves talented, if some of the portraits remain two-dimensional. Lola Kelly is Connor, outwardly reasoned, but inwardly wrenched. Kelly gives her so much of that sense of reason it is difficult to square that with the haunted person the script seems to infer, making the latter moments of the play seem to come from nowhere. William Sayers, as her father, carries the confidence of a self-made man. Christine Avila, in one of the show’s best performances, gives the ranch’s manager both heart and practicality.
Also worthy of note is the spot-on portrait of an aging ranch hand given by Leon Russom. Nicole Erb’s depressed wife, Joseph D. Valdez’s government agent whose truth-telling angers the valley, Cliff Weissman’s bitter neighbor, and Michael G. Martinez voicing the anger of local Native Americans round out the cast. They handle their parts well and with passion. It is the play which doesn’t quite work. Arguments are circular. Realism suddenly morphs into spiritual haze. It’s almost as if nobody could figure out how to end the thing.
Director Kate Jopson, who grew up in the county where this takes place, has used her unique performance space with great creativity. She knows these people and the feel of the characters and their interactions flows as well as the script will allow. Of special note is the sound design by Cricket Myers, which becomes a character all its own: what the valley used to sound like, and what it sounds like in ultimate distress.
“Hole in the Sky” has the potential to have something important to say as to why there aren’t any easy answers when climate change threatens an entire way of life. The arguments of ranchers, officials and the native population, though repetitive, are all treated with a sense of truth. What is lacking, and what may be lacking in society as well, is any sense of what – other than erasure – can be done. This may be truth, but makes for a fuzzy dramatic arc.
What: “Hole in the Sky”. When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Monday, September 10 and 17, and Thursday September 20. Where: Courtship Ranch, 11270 Dominica Ave. in Lake View Terrace How Much: $35 – $50 general, $10 students with ID. Info: http://circlextheatre.org