S.O.S. in West Virginia

Catalina Maynard as Casey. Photo courtesy of Ion Theatre.

Catalina Maynard as Casey. Photo courtesy of Ion Theatre.

Ion Theatre’s newest play, Sea of Souls, running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwright’s Horizon through July 11, has a steadfastly American ethos. The piece is set in a tavern in rural West Virginia in 1967 – a fitting backdrop for heartache & hardship if there ever was one – and chronicles a several-days-encounter between four women: Sam (Rhianna Basore), a young folk singer from New York City who has hitched a ride south in search of the truth about her mother, Casey (Catalina Maynard), a tough bird of a bar matron and owner of the Sea of Souls tavern, Lila (Yolanda Franklin), Casey’s loyal confidant and business partner, and Joan (Abby Fields), a troubled young woman with epilepsy and a deep religious fervor.

Early on in the play there’s mention of Bob Dylan’s ‘new’ song, “Just Like a Woman”, on the jukebox. The moment serves to situate the piece both in history and in mood. The play, like the song, is steeped with a certain folksy, gravelly heartache. We’re in a world of old souls looking to forget the past, where pain (especially women’s pain and suffering) is darkly romanticized.

I can’t imagine it was easy to be a woman in rural West Virginia in the 60’s, and it seems unsurprising that our four main characters are brought together by a series of deep misfortunes. Casey is a widow whose husband was killed in a tragic mining accident, which gave her enough insurance money to open her tavern. Lila was abandoned by her family as a young child, and effectively adopted by Casey. Early in the play, Lila finds a battered Joan in a state of shock in a back alley and decides to take pity on her and offer her room and board in exchange for help around the tavern. Sam is an orphan whose parents died a mysterious death at a young age. She enters the picture when she and an uncouth friend from the area break into the Sea of Souls late one night, looking for a song her mother taught her that’s rumored to play on the S.O.S. jukebox.

Sea of Souls unfolds with a markedly traditional narrative structure. The mystery of Sam’s mother propels the plot forward, and a series of knowing glances between Lila and Casey create more than enough dramatic irony to tell the audience that they know exactly who Sam’s mother is, but for whatever reason aren’t letting on.

The piece moves along at a rapid clip: even at 2 hours long, it certainly does not drag. At times it seems playwrights Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza are aiming to emulate the snappy, no-nonsense, hard-boiled dialogue native to films noirs, and there are moments between the tough-as-nails (dare I say ball-busting?) Casey and Roy (Jason Heil), the well-meaning new deputy in town, where this pacing comes off as dynamic, tense and sexy.

But the quick pacing is constant throughout, and at times makes this production, which is so earnestly seeking to give life to authentic human experiences, feel artificial. On more than one occasion a character is served a sandwich or piece of pie, takes a bite or two, and then abruptly realizes they’d actually better be off.

Nitpicky as this may seem, these moments do feel like something of a microcosm for the rhythm of the play at large. Several of the play’s darkest moments (a monologue about Vietnam war trauma comes to mind) feel unnaturally rushed. I suspect that if the language slowed down a little, it would hit harder.

There’s a certain tidiness to Sea of Souls’ construction. The play seems to answer all of its own questions and consciously pick up all its carefully placed crumbs of symbolism as it wraps itself up. There’s a moment in the first act, for instance, where Joan notices a serpent on Roy’s deputy uniform and proclaims it to symbolize “protection from the wicked.” The serpent resurfaces when she manages a miraculous escape from a nearly deadly car explosion down by Snakeskin Ravine at the play’s end (thereby dodging the death-by-fire suffered by her namesake, Joan of Arc, who gets a shout out early on). She orchestrates her escape, we’re led to believe, by jamming a “metal spike” against the gas pedal and hopping out – a metal spike that can only be the screw driver we see her thrust in her underpants in Act 1 in one of the play’s more visceral and haunting moments.

I appreciate Paris and Raygoza’s literary detailing here, and indeed it’s pleasurable to unpack and connect these moments. But I left the theater feeling as if things had summed up just a little too nicely, hungry for more mystery and a little more to wonder about.

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