Brimstone and Treacle

While we're generally quite willing to accept the wisdom of the modern aphorism, "No pain, no gain," how far are we willing to take this idea? Are we willing to save our souls by going to hell and back? In the aftermath of the final riveting scene in Conundrum Productions' current presentation of Brimstone and Treacle, we face just such questions.

Photo of Josh Hartwell as Martin, Deborah Persoff as Amy, Jim Hunt as Tom, and Jacky Jones as Pattie
(L to R) Josh Hartwell as Martin,
Deborah Persoff as Amy,
Jim Hunt as Tom,
and Jacky Jones as Pattie
As a result of a hit-and-run, the twenty-something Pattie Bates lies, physically and mentally disabled, strapped in a bed in the living room of her parents modest English home.

Jacky Jones is shockingly realistic in the difficult task of balancing Pattie's near vegetative states with furtive attempts at communication that seem condemned to fall just short of making sense.

Pattie's middle-aged parents, Tom and Amy Bates, react to this tragedy each in their own pitiful manner.

Photo of Jim Hunt as Tom and Deborah Persoff as Amy
Jim Hunt as Tom and
Deborah Persoff as Amy

Jim Hunt's Tom is a bitter man, hyper-critical of his wife's housekeeping and cooking. He is world-weary, and longs for the way it used to be: an England without slums; a patchwork pastoral Elysium of quaint, whites-only hamlets. His daughter's accident has turned him into a godless reactionary, attracted by the National Front, plagued by dreams of howling dogs.

Hunt's own worldliness and detailed emotional subtleties add to the complexities of this troubled man. His face, his neat moustache and period haircut, and his formal attire and fastidious, bureaucratic manner complete a remarkable portrait.

Deborah Persoff dulcet tones modulate Amy's meek, emotionally-battered responses to her husband's consistent condescension. She attempts to hold on to civility, but her tidy, organized world is beginning to fray. Her hair is groomed, her dresses neat, but she is an attractive woman who has forgone style: In Persoff's detailed characterization of Amy we see both an exhausted caregiver, a virtual shut-in to her daughter's care, and a cowering, subjugated wife.

Into this shattered existence strolls the enigmatic Martin Taylor, who literally bumps into Tom on the street downtown, and shows up later in the day at Tom and Amy's home, with Tom's empty wallet. Martin is a polite, multi-talented young man, who claims to have been Pattie's sweetheart.

Photo of Deborah Persoff as Amy and Josh Hartwell as Martin
Deborah Persoff as Amy
and Josh Hartwell as Martin
Josh Hartwell's Martin is pleasantly contained on the surface, yet holds a palpable malevolency. He exudes confidence, and knows exactly what Amy, and later Tom, want to hear.

Is he an angel, as Amy wonders, or a devil, as Tom suggests? Hartwell taps a chameleon quality that allows him to effortlessly slip from one to the other, as easily as he surreptitiously moves from room to room, causing us to search for those elusive moments when he leaves one persona for another.

Photo of Jim Hunt as Tom, Deborah Persoff as Amy, and Josh Hartwell as Martin
Jim Hunt as Tom,
Deborah Persoff as Amy,
and Josh Hartwell as Martin
Pouring loquacious, elegant ideas, from Martin's silver tongue, Hartwell morphs from obsequious servant to cheerful nurse to disarming conversationalist with devilish delight. When leading Amy in prayer one dark evening, he beseeches as a revivalist in full Baptist rant, then effortlessly slips into the sonorous tones of a solemn Latin chant.

As the stakes mount, Martin gets adventurous with his plans. He watches with gleam as Tom and Amy squirm, each turn of the screw bringing a more sinister pleasure. What really happened the night of Pattie's accident? What did she see that caused her to flee into the street?

Directed by Scott Gibson, the staging of "Brimstone and Treacle" is taught world, pregnant with the meaningful silences of family rituals, burst by an mounting volley of pointed revelations. The use of subtle but effective sound and lighting effects highlight the story's unnatural spiritual undertones.

Be aware that the tonic playwright Dennis Potter prescribes for this malaise is bitter, and prevented the original commissioned teleplay from being aired in Britain (It was then revived as stage play).

Brimstone and Treacle (sulfur and molasses) begs the notion of an old fashioned antidote for venom, a remedy for the (spiritually) malnourished. By encouraging our shadows to express themselves, and accepting the pain that comes with this surfacing, we exorcise the evil forces that hold our spirits hostage.

Conundrum Productions presentation of Brimstone and Treacle runs through November 22nd at the Buntport Theatre. 303-601-2640.

Bob Bows


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