In a declining industrial town in rural Ohio, a laid-off factory worker named Milcolm Negley, deserted by his wife and daughter, becomes an avid conspiracy theorist and one-man militia. Determined to enlighten his fellow citizens about federal overreach, Negley holes up in the town’s only remaining locus of culture, the National Toby Jug Museum, ostensibly taking its curator, Miss Tink Enraught, hostage. Enraught alerts the authorities and soon she and Milcolm are confronted by FBI field agent DeeDee Reyes.
This is the premise of the self-consciously topical new opera “The Last American Hammer,” with music by Peter Hilliard and libretto by Matt Boresi. Commissioned by UrbanArias, the premiere Saturday night drew a near-capacity crowd at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. UrbanArias founder Robert Wood conducted members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra in a beautifully prepared performance. Grant Preisser designed the set and directed the dramatically taut production.
Timothy Mix as Milcolm, Elizabeth Futral as the curator, and Briana Elyse Hunter as the rookie FBI agent created characters of considerable depth and complexity. Mix lent the uneducated and defeated Milcolm, despite his crackpot political tirades, an air of sympathetic vulnerability. Hunter’s thoughtful Agent Reyes was always credible and beautifully sung. Tink, the curator, on whom much of the opera’s impact depends, was compellingly acted by Futral, yet her wide, uncontrolled vibrato was unfortunately a distraction throughout the evening.
The musico-dramatic characterizations in “The Last American Hammer” are achieved primarily by soliloquy, with singers facing the audience. One wonders if drama and interest might be further heightened with some genuine ensemble singing. That sort of idea remains possible because a thought-provoking creative laboratory is precisely what UrbanArias continues to offer.
"The Last American Hammer" has two more performances, on Sept. 28 and 29, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. For more information, go to urbanarias.org.