Much has already been said about the fast pace and short attention spans that define our modern culture. Gone are the days of Greek dramatic festivals and Noh theater, when a captivated audience would watch plays for hours on end. Even the works of Shakespeare are being edited for time, not out of sympathy for actors who would have to memorize large amounts of dialogue but out of consideration for the modern theatergoer. Against this trend, the Orphanage is presenting Anathemaville, the three-act love child of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the best-selling Sam Walton: Made in America. With a running time of four hours (including two intermissions), Scott Venters's drama is bigger, nastier, and more politically charged than Wilder's play, but nowhere near as relevant.
The evening begins with narrator Leo Jones talking about some of the troubled denizens of this town, who all work at (and are controlled by) a fearsome one-stop-shopping mecca called UberMart. Bernard White models his conduct after the strict UberMart manual, in hopes of advancing through the ranks. David Thompson has abandoned his classics studies at college for a dead-end retail job and a twisted sexual relationship with his half-sister, the alcoholic and vitriolic Kathleen Thompson.
Warren Steuss is a suicidal closet case who secretly pines for David when not being repulsed by the affections of Verda Williams, who speaks in an unintelligible rasp due to a tongue of circus-freak proportions. Verda is so enraptured by Warren that she doesn't realize the enemy she has in Sir Galahad (aka BJ), a devotee of role-playing games who's completely surrendered to the reality of his gaming character and who sees Verda as a fierce beast in dire need of slaying. Overseeing the crew is Bob Robertson, the morbidly obese manager who loves Hostess Sno Balls and his truck Maggie.
These characters are joined in Act 2 by Carol Kennicott, the daughter of one of the chain store's founders and a revolutionary-in-training. Through her misguided manipulations, she awakens the emotionally dormant David and turns him, too, against UberMart. Their dreams of a coup, like their lives and those of their co-workers, soon unravel, and we follow the deceased David as he travels back from the afterlife to Anathemaville, trying to figure out the meaning of it all.
So why does this play come across as full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Perhaps Venters should have looked more closely to his original source. Though Grovers Corners is full of characters, there is a focus on the immediate families of Our Town's two young lovers, George and Emily. That focus then tightens on the couple in Act 2 and on Emily in Act 3. In the town of Anathemaville, however, all ten main characters are given their own elaborate story arcs, and the duo that we're supposed to care about (David and Carol) do not actually meet until the middle of the second act.
Still, kudos must be given to the actors in this production, who have thrown themselves into their roles and admirably tackled hundreds of pages of dialogue. John Ivy, in particular, is immensely enjoyable as the scene-stealing Sir Galahad, investing equal measures of goofiness and gravity into his portrayal of what could have been an irritating one-joke character.
In a world where the Bard's plays are often restricted to 120 minutes, writing a show that clocks in at twice that length smacks of self-indulgence. And if Venters's main intention is to be heard, he makes it tough when the message is this long and unclear.