Wonderful Tennessee
Taproot Theatre
204 N 85th St, 781-9707.
Through Aug 10, $18-$26.

The premise is not inherently terrible: Terry (Bill Johns), a successful bookie, brings five friends to a remote ferry landing with hopes of spending a wild night on the myth-shrouded isle of Oilean Draiochta. The ferry, à la Godot, never comes, and they are left on the dock to reflect on "friendship, dreams, and the deepest yearnings of the heart." Sadly, the play that results is very bad indeed.

The production is not blameless. The set looks great, but its bullheaded realism is like a pair of concrete slippers for a play that's supposed to fly above the everyday. The characters have a frustrating similarity to one another, and they're always craning their necks and gazing dewy-eyed toward the island (somewhere to the left of the light booth). Still, the acting is solid and everything moves along at a professional clip. But even the most seasoned director would need nimble feet to avoid the corn-syrup tarpits that burble beneath every line; unfortunately, Taproot director Scott Nolte clomps right in like an enthusiastic golden retriever.

A play made of stories needs its stories to simultaneously drive the plot, illuminate believable characters, and get the whole thing hurtling toward transcendence, all without upsetting the façade of naturalism. In terms of narrative mechanics, Wonderful Tennessee has the power of a busted Salad Shooter. Just setting up the needlessly complicated relationships is exhausting--everyone is the spouse or relative of at least two other characters onstage. Their stories are more pedestrian than universal; the "deep" ones seem like random offal from Friel's other plays. After an hour of soft-serve anguish, the homogeneity begets confusion; after two hours, the words become strangely inaudible, a sort of sentimental white noise.

Perhaps Friel knew how dull his play was when he wrote it. It feels almost like an authorial wink when Frank (Mark Sparks) implores Trish (Pam Nolte) to tell a story: "It's all right if it's a boring story. Boring is reassuring. Boring soothes. Sedate us, Trish."

Sedate us, Brian Friel.

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