As a historical drama, ‘Day Light’ is two or three dramas too many. Maybe four if we count the ice skates.
Written by Theatre Three’s acting artistic director Bruce Coleman (also a veteran costume designer, set designer and stage director), ‘Day Light’ won the grand prize at the annual Southwest Playwriting Competition at Stage West and is now receiving its world premiere at Theatre Three. But while the lead actors are strong and designer Rodney Dobbs’ stage is handsome and spare – befitting a Texas ranch – the play is about as windy as the Panhandle can get in the winter. There are large snowdrifts of backstory to get through.
This is what we learn in the first act (minor spoiler alert: What follows actually doesn’t spill many beans, this is basically just the set-up). The family has struggled to keep the ranch going – after the father died and his eldest son went off to fight in the Civil War and never came back. This left the matriarch Ada (Cindee Mayfield) dependent on her three remaining sons.
Two of the brothers have longstanding resentments. Younger brother Micah (Max Swarner) – more literary and married, longing to escape the stifling Texas emptiness – resents being bossed by Caleb (Blake Blair), the older, more commanding male. Caleb, meanwhile, feels the burden of responsibility, struggling to keep food on the table. The third remaining brother – the irresponsible runt Nattie (Matthew Holmes) – bolts off in the middle of a blinding snowstorm to try out his new ice skates.
Micah’s wife Kate (Abigail Palmgren) has scary premonitions about her pregnancy. Caleb’s best friend Harris (Sterling Gafford) shows up – a high-living bachelor, he owns the adjoining big spread. Harris reveals both the strong affection he feels for Caleb and the fact a new train line may be coming through (the town’s not called ‘Junction Pass’ for nothing). Why don’t the two families join forces and pry a really good price out of the railroad?
Suddenly, the panicked and half-frozen Nattie returns – immediately followed by two shadowy, terrifying strangers. End of Act One.
What we have, so far, is (deep breath): Jacob-and-Esau-and-the-Prodigal-Son-Quarreling-While-The-Railroad-Is-A’Comin’-And-So’s-My-Baby-But-We’re-Trapped-in-a-Blizzard-and-There-May-Be-Someone-Out-There-In-the-Snow-Gunning-For-Us-And-Is-Something-Gay-Going-On-With-Caleb-and-Harrris? Oh, and Aunt Minnie (Connie Coit) is eager to get outta here and get back to Baltimore. Who could blame her?
To his credit, even as all these troubles swirl about, Coleman does subtly and movingly handle the yearning, unspoken relationship between Caleb and Harris. While the term ‘sodomy’ certainly was known at the time, there’s no sense the two men have ever consummated anything. Michel Foucault has argued that even the entire idea of a ‘homosexual person’ (as opposed to a singular act) didn’t exist until the 1870s.
So ‘Brokeback Mountain’-like, Caleb and Harris can’t articulate or explain what they feel, what might give their lives some meaning. And their attraction is complicated by Caleb’s wariness over Harris’ scheme to gouge the railroad. It means handing over the one thing – the family estate – he’s worked to preserve. So surrendering to his feelings could mean surrendering everything. As Caleb, Blake Blair does a fine job portraying a stolid, honorable man who doesn’t fully understand the forces pounding at him. Meanwhile, Sterling Gafford makes Harris a dashing but insecure figure, a womanizer who’s seemingly at loose ends in his life, who knows he’s something of an empty shell.
Perhaps Coleman envisioned ‘Day Light’ as ‘Chekhov Out West’ (family trapped on an estate, characters wishing to flee to the Big City). There’s certainly the interlocking frustrations and blocked lives, and if Coleman were indeed aiming for Chekhov, he even rather cheekily includes the playwright’s famous ‘rifle hanging on the wall.’ This being Texas, guns do get drawn.
But Caleb’s and Harris’ emotional conflicts are the only ones that are internal. And the only ones that matter. Otherwise, Coleman seems to use characters to dash in with plot complications. Everyone Here Has A Crisis – which is why there’s lots of exposition. Worse, it’s the kind of exposition about things the other characters probably already know, even though it gets explained all over again for us slow wits in the audience.
The low point in ‘Day Light’ comes with the appearance of the Saintly Black Woman – who saves a white character’s life, consoles the worried, pregnant Kate and never really complains about having to solve all these white people’s problems even as the entire Civil War hasn’t exactly been a great boost for her, personally, thank you very much. Sky Williams is warm and appealing in the role, but that doesn’t make the role much more credible.
‘Day Light’ aims to locate issues of race and sexuality in the Old West and – no surprise, really – many of the characters’ reactions (both open-minded and closed-minded) would not be far out of place in our New West. The railroad may come, but Texans, it seems, stubbornly don’t change. Yet Coleman’s aim here is actually what’s potentially intriguing and refreshing about the play. These people are having to face the modern world headed inexorably toward them – like that new railroad carrying all that metaphoric weight with it.
What’s not intriguing is the ratcheting up of a lot of the surrounding melodrama (in the hope, apparently, of keeping us interested). ‘Day Light’ needs to shed more daylight on the individual characters and their personal torments – and not whether there’s enough time left for Aunt Minnie to make the stage coach.
I suspect many theatergoers may find the drama’s ending a little disappointing, a bit puzzling. It’s open-ended, more melancholy and lingering than truly tragic. But I find the questions in that ending more richly in keeping with the play’s central struggles than the Big Upheavals that happen in the second act: All of these problems about who’s leaving, what’s gonna happen with the railroad, what’ll happen to the family – all of them more or less vanish, barely leaving a trace in the snow. That’s how immaterial they were all along.
It’s only Caleb’s deep puzzlement over himself and what he wants that abides. It’s the one moment when Coleman’s play truly approaches the Chekhovian. We don’t know if Caleb is at the end of his rope or if he represents something of the future, the reckoning that’s truly coming to Texas.