Chekhov at the Corner Store
The Triumphant Return of Wayne Rawley
I watched the workshop production of Live! From the Last Night of My Life more than a decade ago. I was just a pup (19? 20?), but playwright Wayne Rawley had been around for a while, writing a popular, trashy, late-night theater serial called Money & Run and a few screamingly funny short plays that popped up in local fringe festivals and quickly disappeared. I never met him, but Rawley's early writing seemed like that of a man afraid of his own talent. His scripts and jokes showed flashes of insight, but only dabbled around the edges of uglier truths—you could tell he wasn't writing everything that he was thinking.
Then I saw that workshop version of Live! at ACT Theatre, fell deeply in love with it, but heard no more of it or him. Rawley fled to Los Angeles—rumors around town said he had some kind of personal crisis, either caused by or enhanced by a painful breakup—and fell into radio silence.
He has moved back, is married, and has a young daughter—and a completed version of Live! The play is a searing comedy about a smart, morose young man who has decided to finish his final graveyard shift at a small-town gas station—called the Super Slurp Gas Up and Get Goin'—and, when the shift is over, blow his brains out. Live! is a story of huge emotions played out in small interactions in a generic gas station, full of candy bars, corn chips, and garish promotional posters. It's magnificent in its quietude, Chekhov at the corner store.
The play's protagonist, Doug Sample, used to work at Amazon.com and now works the graveyard shift at a gas station in Marysville, Washington. All night, he deals with (and toys with) the night owls of Marysville: drunk metalheads, shady guys in fancy cars, people who are either on meth or obsessive-compulsive (it's hard to tell), people who come in to use the microwave without buying anything, psychics who choose to not use their unnatural abilities when they buy lotto tickets, Doug's stoner friends, small-town bullies, those small-town bullies' sad and put-upon girlfriends, other gas-station attendants looking for variety, and so on.
Doug is smarter than all of these people (Live! will have a strong sympathetic resonance for any reasonably intelligent person who's worked a service-industry job) and he plays their late-night therapist. He also plays late-night therapist to himself, conducting imaginary conversations with his mother and father and first girlfriend and most recent girlfriend, who broke his heart. Doug also has imaginary conversations with John Travolta's character in Grease and performs choreographed routines with a corps of imaginary backup dancers. He delivers soliloquies to the security cameras, which will be reviewed by Mrs. Debestani, the woman who runs the store, in the morning.
All the while, we know he's planning to kill himself. Actor Ryan Higgins shows off his stamina in the role of Doug Sample, who is onstage for the entire play and pirouettes between being an arch foil to boneheaded customers and an anguished, ingrown soul talking to the security cameras because they're his only audience.
Live! is, at its root, a two-and-a-half hour "to be or not to be" speech in a small-town gas station. It's a beautiful and sad meditation on how people live—and die—now. There is also a scene in which everyone (besides Doug) performs on roller skates.
Welcome back, Wayne Rawley. Please stay, and please keep writing.