Look Away: A Civil War Zombie Tragedy gets off to a powerful start as Lijah, a runaway slave, addresses the audience and describes an impending catastrophe. "The pale rider is coming," he says with a mounting combination of terror, urgency, and frustration that his warnings aren't being received with the gravity they deserve. The lights go black. Smoke fills the theater. A rag-tag group makes its way from stage left to stage right, firing their guns at the blood-spattered zombie horde that pursues them.
"Lijah [played by Bernard Rule Jr.] is very in tune with what is going on and why it's happening," says Gene Elliott, the subtle, no-nonsense director who also helmed New Moon's delightful production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead last season. Elliott says he is particularly attracted to Lijah's character, and his affinity for that portion of the story shows throughout the production.
"[Lijah's] nature drives him to try and help this family out of their situation, but because of who he is, they won't listen to him," Elliott explains. "No matter how many times he tries to reach out and help them, they reject his help because he is an ignorant slave. I find that aspect of human nature fascinating. We can put blinders on and ignore the truth that is being rubbed in our face and totally justify that raw ignorance afterward."
Only in this case there's not much time to justify anything as every act of raw ignorance is swiftly rewarded by death and dismemberment by the hungry, lumbering undead. Still, it's clear that Elliott is drawn more to the play's underlying social commentary than to its gore.
As zombie stories go, Look Away, an original script by Memphis playwrights Zac Cunningham and Stephen Briner, feels a little canned. Since indie filmmaker George Romero almost single-handedly invented the zombie genre 41-years ago with the iconic Night of the Living Dead, we've seen this same setup time and time again: A contentious group is locked in a house (or mall or pub, etc.) while mindless decaying corpses batter away at the doors and windows. As a Civil War story, Look Away feels equally canned since there is no shortage of stories about Southern families torn apart over issues of pride, slavery, and who will inherit the family farm. But when you mix these two, something interesting happens, or almost happens, as the script could be tightened and tensions increased. But all in all, Look Away functions well enough as both a morality tale and a work of speculative science fiction.
Look Away is populated by stock characters from the canon of Southern literature. Each of the main characters could have been lifted from some lost Lillian Hellman drama. Aaron James plays John, a capable man whose vast potential has been destroyed by his love of whiskey. Stephen Tate is Simon, a crippled young scion with entitlement issues and a driving need to prove his worth. Amy Van Doren, once a staple of Sleeping Cat Studio productions, takes on Sarah, a cat on a hot tin roof who's becoming increasingly frustrated with Hank (Tyler Johnson), her abolitionist husband. And so it goes. Of all these easily recognizable characters, however, the most interesting and the least developed is Dusty Walsh's Rose, a Southern matriarch whose creeping dementia is masked by her Christian charity. It's no surprise that she eventually gives herself over to the zombies, quoting the Bible on the way down: "Take. Eat. This is my body."
Although this New Moon production can be redundant and a bit amateurish around the edges, it's got heart. And it's got guts, and livers, and brains, and just enough blood to keep the horror fans happy. It's also a winning example of how important a role our small theater companies play within the community. As first plays go, Look Away isn't bad, and, according to Cunningham, there are more collaborations with Briner in the works.
"Stephen and I have talked a lot about co-writing another play," he says. "Two on the drawing board right now are a politically incorrect romantic comedy about two hobos falling in love called Jack of Hearts. Another is an as-of-yet unnamed Western centering on gunslingers, gamblers, and other frontier rapscallions."