"The Night Hank Williams Died," a new play by Larry L. King, has nothing to do with the death of country-Western singer Hank Williams, but it has a lot to do with the death of dreams in a small town in West Texas, circa 1952.
It's a blighted landscape, populated by some colorful if hapless critters whose lives are as arid as their talk is juicy. King, who hit pay dirt a decade or so ago with the musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," knows the territory well, and, perhaps because he escaped its pitfalls, he has a crusty compassion for those who didn't.
That underlying sense of authenticity is what is best about "The Night Hank Williams Died," which opened last weekend at New Playwrights' Theatre. At the same time, the play runs up against some serious theatrical problems as it chronicles the slow suffocation of its sunbaked characters. And the biggest problem is one Thurmond Stottle -- a star halfback in his high school days and now "27 and working on a beer gut."
Thurmond pumps gas at a service station across from the fourth-rate roadhouse where the action unfolds. His glory daysare long behind him, but he likes to think he's got a future as the next Hank Williams. Someday, he tells himself between slugs of Pearl beer, he's going to go to Nashville and strike it rich. But someday keeps getting postponed and while the weather announcer on the radio gushes (with more than a touch of symbolism) that in West Texas "the big high sky is the limit," Thurmond's horizons barely extend beyond the county line, and they're shrinking.
Then Nellie Bess blows into town, fleeing a bad marriage and ready to take up again with Thurmond, her high school sweetheart. A cross between a Vargas pinup and little girl lost, she'll wheedle her way into his pipe dreams. It doesn't take a great imagination to figure out that those dreams will go up in smoke, although you may not expect the melodramatic rain of bullets that accompanies it.
King does not orchestrate the precipitous events very convincingly and it doesn't help that one of his key characters, a nasty sheriff, is on a par with the mustache-twirling villains in those Western serials that were once a Saturday afternoon movie house staple. The real trouble, though, is that Thurmond, especially as played by Mark W. Johnson, is a creature of no charm whatsoever, a rough-hewn dolt who complains and rails and whines and generally rationalizes away his sorry state.
There could be considerable poignancy in his plight. One thinks of the late Preston Jones' "Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander," for example, which told a similar story of a golden small-town Texas cheerleader and how she tarnished. But Lu Ann had gallantry and a resilient heart, and you pulled for her. Thurmond is peevish and he's aging badly. King eulogizes him as "a dreamer in a dreamless land," but he has little of the grace or the raw courage of the species.
It makes for a void at the center of a play that, in other respects, has a fair amount going for it. King certainly has an ear for Texas tall talk -- a mixture of grit and fancy that approaches folk poetry on occasion. A guitar is a "headache box." Beer is "stumble juice." Preparing to perform a song he's just written, Thurmond is "as nervous as a whore at church." And when one of the roadhouse regulars wins a game of dominoes, he is "the luckiest man since Lazarus."
Much of the lustiest, liveliest talk comes from the mouth of Gus Gilbert, the proprietor of the bar, whose grizzled manner doesn't entirely mask a benevolent and understanding nature. The philosophical barkeep is a recurring character in American drama, but King has reinvented him fully and made him more than just a witness to passing folly. Gus is also partially responsible for the collapse of so many foolish if life-sustaining hopes, and it will add to the pain already in his leathery soul.
King himself plays the role of Gus. Although he is not an accomplished actor -- indeed, there are times when uttering his lines and handling props prove to be one task too many -- there is often an artless truth to his efforts that is touching. His ravaged face and lumbering physique convey the toll of a lifetime spent in drab places. And when he listens, it's with the concentrated intensity of a true believer.
The loveliest performance, however, is contributed by Elizabeth DuVall, as Nellie Bess, the dime store beauty who got out of town for a while only to discover that things weren't much better down the pike. DuVall has a mouthful of exposition to deliver and often the character is not so much dramatized as explained. Still, the actress is wistful and seductive, coy and innocent, and her silvery presence makes it hard to take your eyes off her.
Director Peter Frisch hasn't found his way around the play's more awkward moments, and he allows one appalling performance -- Janis Benson, as Nellie Bess' mother, a zealot for Jesus -- to poke a big credibility hole in Act 2. Granted, New Playwrights' specializes in plays that are in the process of development. But with sharper staging, the rough spots wouldn't look quite so rough.
Flawed as it is, "The Night Hank Williams Died" has something to say, and the bursts of salty, rambunctious language keep you attentive. But I suspect King won't have an affecting drama until he refashions his hero. From the start, you know that Thurmond is a loser. What you don't feel is that under the petulance and sourness, there was ever a potential winner.
Or even a particularly nice guy.
The Night Hank Williams Died, by Larry L. King. Directed by Peter Frisch. Set, Clifton R. Welch; costumes, Jeffrey Ullman; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner. With Mark W. Johnson, Larry L. King, Elizabeth DuVall, Grady Smith, Gregory Procaccino, Janis Benson. At New Playwrights' Theatre through Feb. 28.