Fans of Sam Shepard might not immediately recognize his hand in "When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable)," an obscure 1996 play he wrote in collaboration with Joseph Chaikin, a director and actor who died last year.
Noted for his colloquially poetic and raw examinations of the American character, Shepard displays an almost sensual appreciation for verbal imagery in this two-character play, now receiving a rare staging from Hard Bargain Players.
The amphitheatre that is the troupe's home was not the ideal location for the quiet drama one recent evening as the crickets or cicadas or whatever the buggy critters are that consider the thick woods of Accokeek's Hard Bargain Farm to be their nocturnal playground went on an auditory rampage. Their high-decibel screeching occasionally drowned out unamplified actors Michael Margelos and Brooke Howells.
That's not a happy circumstance for a low-key, hushed play that is somewhat melancholy in tone and quite deliberate in pace as it creates an elegiac mood. But despite the arthropods' interference, this sensitive narrative of remorse and loss successfully spins its own web of poignant memories and lyrical images, expressed in frequently poetic conversations and monologues.
Margelos portrays an unnamed old man who was once an accomplished chef. He is now a convicted murderer and in a New Orleans prison, apparently nearing the end of his life, although it's not clear if that is because of natural causes or judicial command. Howells is a young woman (also unnamed), perhaps a reporter, who visits the old man and draws him out, gradually revealing her own life in the process.
The two seemingly disparate characters have led lives similarly consumed by obsessive missions. The old man has been playing out the last act in a seven-generation family vendetta, seeking and then attempting to murder a cousin because one ancestor killed another ancestor's mule in their unspecified homeland. In a twist that defies rationality, he mistakes a stranger for the man he has spent his life following, and poisons the wrong person.
The young woman has been searching for the father she never knew, and how that has led her to this stark cell is left open to conjecture, although the possibility is presented, in another highly implausible twist, that she did find her father. But this would have been just moments after he died.
To enjoy this play, one has to suspend the natural inclination to snort at the improbable story lines. The enjoyment comes from focusing on the rich imagery of the memories revealed by the characters, and on the performances of the actors.
Margelos disappears into the old man, the under-30 actor remarkably creating the sense of age and infirmity without makeup or overt theatricality, utilizing a generic, vaguely eastern European accent. Like a chameleon, he is unrecognizable as the actor who played Bobby, the youthful street hustler in Hard Bargain's production of "American Buffalo" earlier this season.
Margelos's costume, credited to Howells and director Brian Donahue, is a major asset, the odd-fitting pants pulled way up on his torso and topped by a bulky shirt. It's effective camouflage that makes Margelos appear shrunken as he shuffles stiffly about the austere cell.
Howells is less successful, her voice flat and often tentative, although she warms to the role as the character becomes less guarded. Howells has less to work with than Margelos. The playwrights purposely leave blank spots at important junctures of her character's story, forcing the viewer to infer how the themes of vengeance and renewal come together for her in this tale.
Donohue has paced the play methodically, fitting the mood of the language and allowing the characters to step away from dialogue to address the audience seamlessly. He also uses a simple but evocative piano underscore that adds to the ritualistic aura that fills the small amphitheatre, the bugs' interference notwithstanding.
"When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable) continues through Saturday, performed by the Hard Bargain Players at The Amphitheatre at Hard Bargain Farm, 2001 Bryan Point Road, Accokeek. Showtime tomorrow and Saturday is 8 p.m. For reservations, call 301-645-0001. Reservations and information are also available at www.hbplayers.org.