As a structured play, Deborah Pryor's "Burrhead" may leave something to be wished for. But it casts a distinct and frequently mesmerizing spell at the New Playwrights' Theatre, where it opened Sunday night.
Much of it is one step away from narrative writing, but the writing is so oddly poetic and yet so precise in its quirky Southern Gothic imagery that it very often becomes dramatic. Basically, Pryor is tracing the transformations in a dirt poor girl named Joby, who lives on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, and who comes to understand and embrace the animal side of her nature. Although Pryor has populated the landscape with bizarre, dream-like creatures, who help that transformation along, "Burrhead" really takes place deep in the young girl's consciousness.
While part of me was wishing the author would expand the scenes between her characters, another part of me was clearly hooked by the originality of her vision and the pungent descriptiveness of her prose. It is obvious that she sees the world from a special slant, and while a slant alone does not make for drama (drama is the result of intersecting slants), it does produce a richly painted evening. Pryor is the sort of writer who notices that the fuzzy caterpillars are creeping into shapes "like words" or that the swamp water is "root beer colored." One character describes her beauty parlor hair tint as "apricot mist" and a man's breathing is "like fur against tree bark." Arresting details, those. Pryor is never at a loss for them.
"Burrhead" chronicles Joby's attraction to and flight from the handsome "swamp rat" she allows herself to marry in her dust-streaked innocence. Courted in a surrealistic amusement park, married amidst the snake-handling fanatics of a pentecostal church, she is carried into the heart of darkness for her nuptial night. There, she realizes that she is in carrion country and that her husband has a deep lust for blood. So she flees.
She flees over mud-caked roads, through muddy waters, into the nearest small town (the movie house shows horror films and the soda shop has "a revolving penguin on the top"), all the way around to the other side of the swamp. There she encounters the titular "burrhead," a tick-infested, barefooted boy with wisdom in his mad chatter, before she plunges back into the swamp. What she is really fleeing, however, is a part of herself, the bestial forces her husband threatens to awaken in her breast, the animal blood pounding in her temples.
The play's confrontations are not so much between Joby and the other characters, a wonderfully idiosyncratic gallery of rubes and crazies. The real confrontations are in her head alone, one side of her nature resisting the other. The secondary characters seem to function primarily as omens, bits of nightmare, strange visionaries in a strange land propelling her toward some basic realization of herself. "You chase a creature," says Joby's husband, with the cool instinct of the born hunter. "It'll show you everything it's got."
Stunning as many of Pryor's passages are, they are primarily monologues, swatches of description delivered directly to the audience or Greek chorus asides. The play's most riveting scene comes early in the first act: Joby being courted by the troublesome hunter, the two of them caught in the sickly light of a Tunnel of Love. It is riveting because suddenly there is an authentic thrust and parry, a feeling out of sensibilities--drama, in short. Once Joby starts to run, the other characters lose some of their life as human beings and take on the less rewarding life of symbols.
And yet the overall climate, as conceived by directors Lloyd Rose and James Nicola, is palpably effective. A theater is hardly the best locale in which to depict miles of panic-striken flight, yet Russell Metheny's weathered wooden set with its trap doors and sliding platforms, and Lewis Folden's spectral lighting, help surmount the obstacle.
Marcia Gay Harden, a remarkable young actress with an equally remarkable ability to look pure and profane simultaneously, brings great conviction to the role of Joby, although the script may be asking her to carry an impossibly heavy load. David Sitler, as her beau, has the seductive ominousness of still waters. There are also some startling appearances by T. J. Edwards, as the burrhead; Prudence Barry, as his mother; T. G. Finkbinder, as a host of Southern hicks; Lynnie Raybuck, as a Cassandra in pedal pushers, high heels and platinum wig, and Connie Fowlkes and Dale Stein as a pair of "not necessarily identical, identical twins," who sing gospel in the local church and provide snippy commentary on the action.
Like James Leonard's "And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson," a recent NPT production, "Burrhead" carves out a slice of small-town hysteria. If Pryor does not compose her scenes as adroitly as Leonard, she nonetheless pursues her singular vision with vigorous imagination. It is probably wisest to approach her play as a phantasmagoria unfolding. If you do, you will find that it echoes in the ear and sticks to the eyeballs.
BURRHEAD. By Deborah Pryor. Directed by James Nicola and Lloyd Rose; set, Russell Metheny; lighting, Lewis Folden; sound, John Garner; costumes, Mary Ann Powell. With Marcia Gay Harden, T. J. Edwards, David Sitler, Lynnie Raybuck, Prudence Barry, T. G. Finkbinder, Connie Fowlkes, Dale Stein. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through July 10.