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Theater Review:

"THE TRESTLE AT POPE LICK CREEK," Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Breadline Theatre


Naomi Wallace’s ghostly poetic psychodrama, "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek" – receiving its Chicago premiere by the insightful Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Breadline Theatre – begins with a shadow play of various winged creatures. But these brief attempts to craft aviary figures prove futile. The characters in this Depression Era chamber piece cannot escape their poverty-racked lives – even in some of their bold dares to outrun a locomotive that blows past the title trestle.

On the surface, this play appears to tell the story of a defiant teenage girl, Pace Creagan, who goads the slightly younger Dalton Chance into beating a train that runs through the outskirts of an anonymous rural American town, where factory and foundry workers face layoffs and strained marriages. The tragic outcome lands Dalton in jail, facing possible hanging, for a crime he may or may not have committed.

Yet "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek" exists in another realm altogether. Through metaphor and abstracted flashbacks, Wallace addresses the fatalistic bond of two young people coping with a non-existent future at the same time she creates characters engaged in a collective form of self-injury to remind themselves they are alive. They are all very much like those pathetic potatoes Pace talks about – the ones that sprout roots in a box of dirt, deceived by the semblance of land but ultimately choked off by lack of nourishment.

This sentiment is best expressed by Dalton’s father, who laments, "I don’t know how to belong to my life anymore." And it frames a heart-stopping plate-tossing scene between Dalton and his wife. Interestingly, these individuals harbor a wish to be transmogrified – the same way a shattered saucer changes from utilitarian to dangerous.

Director Karen Kessler reflects Wallace’s morbidly entrancing tone of writing in this luminous production, which floats between reality and an emotional sphere of unknowns. And, although the second act gets bogged down in overly ponderous symbolism, the ensemble maintains extraordinary focus amid their characters’ deadly ennui. The playwright also weaves in compelling issues of gender perceptions and expectations.

The simultaneously cold and erotic exchanges between Becca Kotler’s mysteriously rebellious Pace and Jason Sawyer’s curious but patient Dalton set a graceful tension in motion. We can fully understand their antagonistic attraction for each other as both embody the extreme dichotomies present in us all.

As Dalton’s mother Gin, Tara Mallen pairs stoic endurance with a fragility of spirit – most evident in a surreal scene in which she celebrates and mourns the fact that the chemicals in the factory where she works turned her hands blue. John Neisler brings an air of quiet inevitability to her depressed and suicidal husband Dray (out of work and, therefore, robbed of his identity). Only Kent Reed as Dalton’s talkative jailer struggles to extricate himself from his character’s cliched philosophizing.

The Rivendell artists make ingenious use of Breadline Theatre’s long but compressed space. A wooden bird-like swoop of railroad tracks designed by Robbie Hayes and Elvia Moreno undulates across the back wall and soars above heavy stone support beams, which hint of the treacherous transportation above. Jaymi Lee Smith’s soft, non-literal lighting creates a jail cell with a few slicing beams of light and shadow or a crisp autumn ravine via delicate burnt-orange and rustic-reddish hues against projections of leaves. Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design has the capacity to shatter and soothe. And Vicky J. Strei’s worn 1930s costumes remind us of these characters’ shabby, monotonous lives.

It’s no coincidence that Breadline Theatre sits directly under the Ravenswood "L" tracks – further blurring the sound of the play’s merciless fictitious locomotive and the outside trains, whose real rumbling gives this production a piercingly immediate edge.•

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s production of "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek" runs through March 31 at Breadline Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (three blocks south of Irving Park Road at Ravenswood). Tickets: $15. Call 773-472-1169 or log onto

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