How can you know which days will change your life? How do you know when you’re moving from a time of happiness into one of sorrow? These are the questions that Husk, a new play by Anthony Smith ’11, explored last weekend over three performances in the ’92 Theater.
This is only the second Smith production I’ve seen, but already I’m impressed by the consistently high quality of his writing. The dialogue had its weak points (a second-act tirade, in my opinion, ran a little long—but perhaps I just feel that way whenever a character raises her arms and curses God), but generally it was very strong, and I thought the show’s pacing was excellent.
The extremely brief run-down of the show, which clocked in at just over two enjoyable hours, is this: the action is set in the small town of Husking, Indiana, and the two acts are separated by eight months (first August, then April). In August, the small subset of the community we see is teetering on the brink of collapse—by April the disaster has occurred. The entirety of the action is set in the main room of Max’s Diner.
The eponymous owner of the diner, Max, is the glue that holds this small community together and, in many ways, he’s the axle that the play turns around as well. Played here by the endearing and very talented Justin Wayne ’12, Max is the sort of character you can’t help but love: simple, innocent almost to the point of naïveté, and able to give every customer what they’re looking for (and not just in terms of food). The character is so immensely likeable, and Wayne played him so well with a rolling gait and a musical twang, that he very nearly stole the show.
Fortunately, the play was filled with strong characters: Grace Asleson ’13 also gave a sturdy and nuanced performance as Max’s wife Marlene, who is pregnant—unfortunately, not with Max’s child. The child’s father is local Sheriff Julius (played here very capably and surprisingly earnestly by Ameen Beydoun ’11), with whom Marlene’s been having an affair. The first act ends with Max’s accidental discovery that she’s pregnant, though he thinks the child is his; in the second act, he’s gone. And things are falling apart.
But enough of that plotline; there’s an entire second series of events in this play. This one concerns Max and Marlene’s good friend Barbs, a recently widowed mother who, partly out of desperation for something to do, has started her own detective agency (The Little Lady Detective Squad), at odds with both the bully-led Neighborhood Watch and the exasperated Sheriff. Bubbly, enthusiastic, incredibly dedicated, and nowhere near competent, Barbs was played by new talent Leah Rosen ’14. Rosen gave an excellent performance, hitting many of the right notes—including the slow revelation that she is not simply an enthusiast, but desperate.
The one weakness of Rosen’s performance was simply that she played too young (and physically, she’s a bit too petite) to be taken wholly seriously as a mother, especially since her son is supposed to be seventeen. (The son, an extremely intelligent boy who keeps his mother engaged in her “hobby” through deceit in order to keep her from drinking, was deftly played by Timothy Wolock ’13.)
The final significant factor in this tangle—and I am forced for brevity to leave out many, many strong performances—is Francis, a Husking native who moved to Westchester to teach high school, and is back in town on a “mandatory sabbatical.” His sabbatical is due to…well, something involving a student, and multiple residents refer to him as a “creep.” In fact, the head of the neighborhood watch—a thuggish Sherriff’s deputy played by Eliezer Oberman ’12—threatens him with compromising photos, telling him to leave town…but also that he’ll send the photos on to like-minded people wherever Francis moves. Francis proceeds to attempt suicide in the bathroom of Max’s using Barb’s gun; and although Bennett Kirschner ’13 played him with a bit more slime than tact, he was still human enough for us to regret his apparent death. (Max, Francis’ only friend in Husking, mentions near the end of the play that he is merely paralyzed.) In any case, that violent act is only the precursor to less violent, but no less devastating, events.
“Nothing is happening like it should…I was supposed to be happy!” Marlene wails during her mental breakdown, pregnant and sans Max, in the second act. It’s what everyone is feeling at the time. In very real ways, a million small but predictable things have gone wrong. That’s part of what made the play so excellent: lifelike complexity, on the levels of both plot and character. Barbs is a sweetheart, but definitely a bit of a Nazi; Sheriff Julius is a bit of a scumbag but earnestly trying to keep the streets safe; and Francis at times seems both a criminal (there’s little doubt that he did what he’s accused of) and a victim of the bullying. In fact, the one consistently good thing is Max, and though there’s no real resolution, the play does end with a sense of hope, closing as it began: with Max listening to the radio and wiping down his simple diner, ready to lend a kind ear and sympathetic smile to anyone—yes, anyone—who comes in.