"25 Saints," the world premiere drama written by Pinebox Theater Company Ensemble Member Joshua Rollins, literally starts with a bang. The viewing audience barely has time to settle into their seats and turn their smart phones to the vibrate setting, before the character of Deputy Vance (John Ross Wilson) bursts through the front door of a remote West Virginia cabin.
Vance is howling from the pain of a possibly mortal wound, pursued by two young men, Charlie (Drew Johnson) and Tuck (Josh Odor). As the boys attempt to finish what looks to be the murderous job they started, they are flanked by a blood-soaked but composed young woman named Sammy (Caroline Neff) who appears conspicuously delicate and out of place in such a grisly setting.
The quick, violent scene cannot fail to grab one’s attention, forcing an audience member to bolt upright and wonder just what the heck is happening on the stage of the Greenhouse Theater Center Upstairs Studio. The visceral "25 Saints" could never be accused of a slow start.
The latest production in Pine Box Theater Company’s 2012/13 season, "25 Saints" is the brainchild of Rollins, the creator of Pine Box’s previous hit "A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes." With an incredibly fast-paced 75-minute running time (no intermission), "25 Saints" doesn’t have a moment to spare, as evidenced by the brusque opening scene.
The play adopts the fairly unique narrative device of dropping its main characters, as well as the viewing public, right into the physical and emotional denouement of a crisis that is both immediate, yet took an apparent lifetime to fester.
The production’s press materials are every bit as deliberate and pointed as the work itself. With sparing, stark prose, the plot is described as follows: "Charlie Roedel returns to Appalachia to clean up the mess his brother left behind. He’s paying off a debt that isn’t his. The woman of his dreams loves the man who left her there. There are no prospects. No jobs. No hope. And a homicidal Sheriff wants a batch of meth cooked by Thursday."
Well then. Succinct enough for you? Don’t expect much more adornment. This play is not devoted to long-winded monologues from navel-gazing characters that like to hear the sound of their own respective voices. Timing is urgent. Circumstances are dire. Every moment someone’s life is on the line. Under duress and pain such as that endured by the drama’s central players, there’s no time for chitchat.
Rollins uses the cast’s careen toward annihilation, and the furtive sentences snatched between long periods of awkward silence, to create a biographical framework. Charlie (a youthful, Jeff Daniels-eque Drew Johnson) is offered as the good guy -- the smart, educated fellow from a backward town who got away for a time, and might have even made something of himself, were it not for his Achilles’ heel.
That weakness is his undying love for Sammy, abandoned by Charlie’s never-seen brother, a meth cooker turned wayward addict. As played by Caroline Neff, whose work I most recently admired in Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s "Three Sisters," Sammy is certainly the kind of woman for whom a man might risk his life.
An ethereal beauty, delicate yet strong, Neff turns a neat trick in her portrayal, rendering a characterization of a woman who is both loving as well as a transparent opportunist.
Charlie has a misguided notion that he will be able to rectify the mess his compulsive sibling left behind when he fled the clutches of Sheriff (a greasy, intimidating Danny Goldring) and his enforcer, the physically delicate, yet snidely evil Ms. Duffy (a spot-on chilly Molly Reynolds).
It is unclear how Charlie’s brother’s best pal Tuck (a highly competent Josh Odor) came to participate in this scheme, except it is made clear that in this land of barren opportunity, the lure of a quick buck and a ride out of town can prove irresistible.
The concise, blunt script leaves little time for anyone to catch his or her breath, participants as well as voyeurs. Much credit is owed to Director and Pine Box Ensemble Member Susan E. Bowen for protecting the narrative vision and pace envisioned by her colleague Rollins.
Scenic Designer John Ross Wilson successfully manages to evoke endless acres of haunting wilderness and poverty within the confines of a space that holds less than 100 viewers. Superior work.
"25 Saints" offers a topical and timely vignette (think AMC’s top-rated "Breaking Bad") that presents an opportunity for important discourse about the rural drug trade, local corruption and the cycle of ignorance and paucity that perpetuates these social infections. As the crooked Sheriff opines to a trapped Charlie: to what can one aspire when surrounded by unchecked authority, dollar stores and fast food joints?
Although inappropriate for younger viewers with its severe depictions of verbal and physical brutality, "25 Saints" is tough to watch, difficult to digest and impossible to forget.
"25 Saints" runs through March 31 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. For info or tickets, visit the Green House Theater Center website.