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‘Motortown’ at Steep: Danny comes marching home, but the emotional shelling doesn’t stop

Submitted by on Oct 29, 2013 – 7:25 pm

Review: “Motortown” by Simon Stephens, at Steep Theatre through Nov. 23. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Danny has no visible scars, no missing limbs, but this former British soldier bears deep wounds from his tour of duty in Iraq. He is the tormented, dangerous antihero of playwright Simon Stephens’ “Motortown,” now in a riveting North American premiere run at Steep Theatre. 

“Motortown” is Steep’s third go at a Simon Stephens play in recent seasons, following “Harper Regan” and “Pornography.” And round three comes with news that the company’s close connection with Stephens, two-time winner of England’s Olivier Award, has been formalized with his appointment as Steep’s first associate playwright.

This latest venture sets the special rapport between Steep and Stephens in high relief. It is devastating theater, a concisely and potently fashioned play executed with an unerring sense of one reeling soul and the suddenly disjunctive – and not a little perverse — world around him.

Joel Reitsma delivers a shattering performance as a young man spun off course and out of control by the horrors of war, the atrocities he witnessed at the hands of his comrades, the almost unendurable abuse by his superior officers – to say nothing of the pulverizing effects of mines and bombs. Danny is not the same lad who went to war. He is confused, paranoid, vengeful. And starved for emotional nourishment.

So the first thing he does is seek out the girl he left behind, Marley (played by Julia Siple with a fine blend of apprehension and contempt). But it seems Danny has burned that bridge with his disturbing letters to Marley from the war zone. Besides, she insists, they weren’t exactly boyfriend-girlfriend; they just dated for a time. Now she wants him to leave her alone.

Danny does not take rejection – or betrayal — well. Even in his tumultuous state of mind, however, he’s still selective about how he metes out retribution. The rage often vents sideways, and Danny can surprise you.

Take, for example, the startlingly open misstep by his autistic brother Lee (Chris Chmelik in a performance of disquieting candor and utter vulnerability). Lee can rattle off the current population of just about any city in the world you can name. And he knows exactly what condiments he has in the fridge. He also has a functioning conscience. Danny does, too, except that his is damaged.

“Motortown” – the title refers to the auto manufacturing center where Danny lives – cries out for the almost claustrophobic layout of Steep’s production, sharply focused by Dan Stratton’s efficient sets and Sarah Hughey’s expressive lighting. Director Robin Witt chisels the play’s sequence of eight scenes with a craggy precision evocative of Rodin. As the perspective shifts from one starkly drawn image to the next, the viewer well might be changing positions when of course it’s the set-up moving from spot to spot in that tiny space.

The remarkable strength of this cast and Witt’s skill in building tension are both driven home in a series of mid-play set pieces: Danny visits an old pal (Eddie Reynolds), who operates a BB gun shop, to buy a realistic-looking pistol that shoots pellets. Gun in hand, he goes to a shady character known for skill at turning pellet guns into actual firearms. This guy, who may be certifiably crazy (the very scary Peter Moore), has a girl-toy called Jade (Ashleigh LaThrop), to whom Danny takes a fancy.

After a brief interlude back with old flame Marley that doesn’t go terribly well, Danny reappears on a remote island with Jade in tow. Though they’re just out for a lark, right away she starts to get a bad feeling.

Bear in mind, gentle reader, that our sporting couple is almost within arm’s reach of everyone in the audience. As the girl finds her cause for concern growing clearer, Ashleigh LaThrop shows us what real fear looks like, in a progression from palpable uneasiness to something beyond speech. This is not Faye Wray screaming in the clutches of King Kong, but a person in front of us whose eyes we can all see, collapsing by swift degrees into stark terror. But Danny, as I said, is unpredictable.

And Simon Stephens, such a good story-teller, provides two more chances to guess which way Danny will jump. First, there’s a hotel encounter with a pair of sex adventurers (Alex Gillmor and Kendra Thulin) who badly miscalculate the threesome potential of troubled Danny. And finally – is anyone in the audience not holding their breath? – Danny lands back with someone he’s sure he can count on. Perhaps too sure.

If there’s something vaguely clinical about “Motortown,” its unblinking honesty sends you away deeply impressed and reflective. Within the battered heart of this erstwhile soldier, a residue of human kindness abides, a mutation of love.

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