The Ballard brothers are three of the most dysfunctional, chauvinist, volatile, unregenerate characters outside of Shakespeare. From what appears to be black comedy, Derby Day quickly shifts into serious emotional pyrotechnics rivaling anything mounted by the Grucci* family. Slightly more than an hour of increasingly abhorrent behavior and raw revelation passes in a mesmerizing blink.
Frank, Ned (Thumper), and Johnny (oldest to youngest), have waited two weeks to bury their abusive, alcoholic father in order to come together for Derby Day at the Arkansas Racetrack where they spent much of their childhoods. The only one with an apparent income, Frank has paid for the use of a luxury, third-floor “box” from which the brothers periodically and vividly watch races on which they’ve bet—across the fourth wall. “You don’t gamble to win,” he reminds his siblings when they voice big dreams, “You gamble for the possibility to win.” Rough, southern dialect and peppered idioms are pitch perfect.
Ned, seemingly a con man by proclivity if not action, has a current wife in Chicago with money and an alienated daughter from another marriage. Johnny, just released from a half way house after prison, has an ex-wife and daughter in Florida. All three have been successively married, cheating with one another’s spouses. “One day, a horse wakes up and realizes who his father was,” comments Frank. The phrase, referring to a “sure bet,” is equally apropos of the family. Beer and shots delivered by a waitress with her own dreams flow like a river. She thought she’d seen it all.
Playwright Samuel Brett Williams, who grew up across the street from the Oaklawn Racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas, clearly knows his turf. Specificity makes the Ballards fascinating. A series of historical surprises revealed during their unraveling, is inserted with high craft. Gangbuster momentum leaves little time for pathos or sympathy. Derby Day portrays the American Dream of a perfect future against the odds. The rigorous piece echoes.
Jared Culverhouse (Frank) takes us on a credible journey as the elder who seems to be keeping things together, then gradually submits to provocation and innate hot temper. Culverhouse’s well grounded performance serves as ballast. His focus is unquestionable. When still, we feel him seething; his drunken weaving is worthy of O’Neill.
Malcom Madera (Ned) offers the kinetic characterization of a man whose almost completely reprobate life of self-justification comes apart before our eyes. Madera is constantly moving, yet manages not to upstage his fellows. He has terrific skill with listening. Fisticuffs appear to be ruled by alcohol and rancor, not stage direction.
Jake Silbermann (Johnny) ably plays the romantic. His artfully expressed pain has the ring of a confused, captive animal. Struggle with passive aggressive nature is nuanced, his dissolution more sensitively evidenced than that of the brothers. Selective restraint epitomizes Silbermann’s acting. A line about his character’s prison experience is reserved for those who catch it.
Beth Wittig (Becky) plays the cynical, pragmatic, opportunistic waitress with naturalism. She has a good sense of act/react timing. That Becky is less well realized than the men may be a director’s choice.
Director Michole Biancosino offers portraits of characters who could have been lost in bluster, but instead ring true. Differences in physical attitude and mannerism are adroit. The stage is well utilized. Pacing is productively relentless and descriptive. Dramatization of viewing races is aptly rowdy and immensely evocative.
Fights directed by Alberto Bonilla could be crisper. While choreography is good, fists rarely seem to connect. Alfred Schatz’s Set Design does not signify luxury in any way. Perhaps this is how race boxes look in Arkansas.
Derby Day is theater worthy of wider notice by a playwright worthy of following.
*The preeminent family of fireworks producers.
Photo credit: Paul Gagnon
1. Jared Culverhouse, Malcom Madera, Jake Silbermann
2. Jared Culverhouse, Jake Silbermann, Malcom Madera
3. Jake Silbermann, Beth Wittig, Malcom Madera
4. Jake Silbermann, Jared Culverhouse, Malcom Madera
Camisade Theater Company presents
Derby Day by Samuel Brett Williams
Directed by Michole Biancosino
The Clurman Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through December 17, 2011