"I will take you there. Promise you the moon." — Vanity, "Pretty Mess"
"[Reasons for Falling] is only loosely based on the story of Icarus," says playwright/director Leslie Barker. That may be stretching things. As in the original story, there's a father and a son. And there are wings. And there's a reason for the show's title. But then the resemblances get fuzzy.
Barker's good at saying what the new play she's co-written with Joe McDaniel isn't, but she struggles at times to say exactly what the script she's subtitled "A Story of Icarus" is exactly. She knows, of course, but she knows in pictures instead of words, and this is evident in the production. "I'm the image person," Barker says. "Joe was always asking, 'Okay, what's the story?'"
It's a good question and one I was still asking last weekend when Reasons opened at TheatreSouth.
It may not be obvious to those who haven't followed Voices of the South, but this struggle between words and images — between clear storytelling and open-ended metaphor — is the central conflict of a promising new show with crippling identity issues. The lushly theatrical, quasinarrative style championed by Voices of the South has only occasionally yielded more beautiful imagery, but the partially purloined script is muddled and too symbol-heavy to really fly. On the other hand, it's a testament to the company's artistic vision, and to Barker's directorial skills, that a piece this convoluted can still bring some audience members to the brink of weeping hysteria.
Barker says images were taken from her early life in the rural South, where people still went into the mountains to get closer to God. She describes an uncrossable river that might be life or just the Mississippi and a young person struggling to determine where his humanity ends and his divinity begins. But mostly, when she describes her play, Barker talks about the pop music it celebrates.
Developing writers often quote, paraphrase, or allude to established authors, as if attempting to conjure sympathetic magic while fishing for comparisons to more celebrated work. The same urge to substitute found words for original insight makes Reasons especially problematic. The primary characters — a half-angel/half-boy and a prophetess — play trivia games that bring decontextualized lyrics and unearned emotions into the dialogue.
If Jeff Buckley can't make it across the river, "Who can?" the playwrights ask through their characters, foreshadowing an emotionally charged run through Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" later in the show that further cements an unearned emotional link to Buckley, who famously covered the song. Those who don't already have a connection to Buckley, and the other musicians referenced, may find it difficult to care.
Compared to Reason's underdeveloped characters even the mercurial Buckley, who drowned while swimming fully clothed where the Wolf meets the Mississippi, seems grounded and gloriously mundane.
So what exactly is Reasons for Falling: A Story of Icarus? It's an impressionistic mashup of teen-angst poetry, Bible stories, Greek myth, and small-town dreaming set in a world that never quite resembles the earth we know or the heavens we've imagined.
It's interesting to ask where music comes from, as Reasons does incessantly. And in Memphis, the city of Sun, Moon, and Satellite records, it's clever to imagine, as Reasons does, that it comes to us from the sky. But it also comes from real places too. We experience music in real ways that imbue the silliest pop with the deepest meaning. Ironically, what sinks this Icarus story — a pretty mess, if ever there was one — is a sweet, youthful vanity that believes decontextualized lyrics are meaningful to everybody, because they are personally meaningful.
Voices of the South is committed to developing work by regional authors, and the spunky independent has had successes with original works; Elaine Blanchard's Prison Stories; and new and adapted works by company members. Reasons for Falling, with some fantastic original music by Jeff Lusk, is Voices' latest debut. It's a good first effort by this new creative team, but it's not quite ready for prime time.
Through August 18th