Lee Blessing's "Lonesome Hollow," also part of this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), is less a play than a pompous, paranoid sermon laying out the grim, totalitarian future that today's thought police (who hail, of course, from the religious right) have in store for us.
Lonesome Hollow is the name of a town that's been taken over by shadowy government types who've walled it off and re-peopled it with sex offenders whose formal jail terms have expired. The concept was inspired by existing state laws that allow continued post-sentence incarceration of sex offenders.
Here, good sex offender and artist Tuck (Sheffield Chastain) and evil sex offender and cigarette smoker Nye (Lou Sumrall) dream of eventual escape from their relatively country club-like prison, even as they hear rifle shots in the distance — presumably aimed at those attempting a dash for freedom. But whatever they may have in mind is complicated by their shadowy keepers, Mills (Andrea Cirie), and Glover (Frank Deal), as well as by Tuck's "normal" sister Pearl (Anne Marie Nest) who pays an inevitably disastrous visit to the compound.
The vexing issue of what to do with sex offenders — a criminal sub-group that, according to most scientists and psychologists, is nearly impossible to rehabilitate — has indeed proved to be uniquely challenging to our society both morally and judicially. But that is not really the point here. Mr. Blessing employs this socio-legal dilemma as a metaphor to conjure up a horrific future where pious religious fanatics use sex criminals as an excuse to allow the government to clamp down on and eviscerate everyone's freedoms.
Mr. Blessing is less interested in storytelling than he is in goading the audience into fearing the implied terrorism of a mythical right-wing morality squad. As a result, "Lonesome Hollow" rapidly deteriorates into a tiresome propaganda vehicle gasbagging to a predictably gloomy conclusion.
While the actors in this drama strive mightily to escape the constraints imposed by their two-dimensional roles, resistance is futile. Mr. Blessing's penchant for speechifying proves stupefying, particularly when it comes to the insufferably extremist Glover, who issues fatuous fatwas like a seasoned Taliban mullah. Playing defense, the audience can merely sigh and glance longingly at watches and exit signs, lending at least some truth to the central metaphor of a play that has no intermission.
From the American Civil Liberties Union's successful demonization of religion in public spaces, to academia's virtual banishment of conservatives from professorships, to the near total dominance of mainstream media by wealthy socialists, the totalitarian impulse in America is indeed alive and well. But our modern McCarthyites oppress from the left, not the right, an irony that playwrights like Mr. Blessing are apparently unable to see.
WHO: Contemporary American Theater Festival
WHAT: Lee Blessing's "Lonesome Hollow"
WHERE: Studio Theater on the campus of Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
WHEN: Various times, through July 29
TICKETS:$26 to $36
INFORMATION:1-800-999-2283 or visit online at www.catf.org.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS