Playwright: Calamity West. At: Jackalope Theatre Company at City Lit in Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-340-2543; www.jackalopetheatre.org; $5-$15 . Runs through: Dec. 8
Eleanor is dead, to start.
She hanged herself in her off-campus apartment three weeks before the start of our story, leaving fellow student-author Nan the sole woman in a New England university writers workshop dominated by young males aspiring to the Norman Mailer cult of masculinity characterizing American literature in 1946. This is not the starting point of our play, however. Calamity West instead launches her narrative from the scene of its decisive confrontation, involving a bottle of whiskey, a Christmas wreath, a bleeding head wound and a prosthetic leg detached from its owner.
If that doesn't immediately grab your attention, it provides incentive to stick around for the flashback acquainting us with the circumstances leading up to this crisis. Nan, you see, writes two-fisted adventure yarns of soldiers suffering battlefield atrocities. She even, herself, boasts a damaged leginjuries associated with he-man heroes like General Santa Anna or Captain Ahabcompounding her classmates' resentment of her undisputed artistic talent. Her envious comrades, by contrast, are preppy pretenderswith one lonely romanticistmired down in gender-nebulous precocity that they attempt to disguise through testosteronic posturing. ( The noisiest of the bunch sniggers at a smuggled volume of Henry Miller, but flees in terror when Nan quotes Walt Whitman at him. )
"A story can work on many levels," insists Calvin, speaking of his own Tolstoy-wannabe scribblings, "You don't have to get it all in one read." This observation may also be applied to West's densely-constructed portrait of youths chafing under postwar trauma. On the surface, it can be viewed simply as a feminist polemic of butch girls bullied by effete boys ( even the likewise repressed professor eventually demands that his star pupil write less mannishly ). Playgoers versed in scholarly fashions of the era may also recognize the literary underpinnings ( think Melville ) of the punishment inflicted on those who challenge predetermined social roles.
Jackalope Theatre has forged its reputation on microcosmic suspense preceding incendiary violence, an aesthetic fulfilled by Marti Lyons' direction of the ensemble led by AJ Ware as the laconic heroine ( whose mystery is enhanced by a costume ensuring designer Samantha Jones a Jeff nomination next spring ), and featuring multi-layered characterizations by Tim Martin, Nate Wheldon, Jack Miggins, Ed Dzialo and Andrew Burden Swanson as her silent-generation peers. Don't expect to walk away with it all after just one read.