SANFORD – In Lanford Wilson’s “The Rimers of Eldritch,” a trial is going on, to determine the traumatic incident that happened to a young girl, and led to a violent death. But if you dig a little deeper, you get the sense that it’s small town America that’s really on trial.
Wilson’s play, which is now being performed at Seminole State College, is set in the mid-20th century in Eldritch, Missouri. Once a prosperous coal mining town, Eldritch is now a decaying part of the old Bible Belt. The trial focuses on a death, and what role the young woman’s attack played in it all.
The trial is presided over by a local preacher who warns of the dangers of eternal damnation to his shrinking flock. But there’s no question that the beneath the surface, there are plenty of dark secrets going on. The initial appearances – the faithful members of the church, the innocent teenager faces, those hard-working families – slowly start to unravel. The play was written and produced in 1966, but watching it today, it’s hard not to think about a movie like “Blue Velvet,” David Lynch’s 1986 drama, which tackles remarkably similar territory.
Seminole State College revives the play in a production directed by John DiDonna, who in the program book notes that what attracted him to this piece was “Secrets that live in the house next door, beyond the fields out back, in the diner on the corner. Secrets that linger in the eyes of your neighbors, the hearts of your family, and the gossip on the porch.”
The play, he added, “is an incredible weave of secrets and half truths, perceptions and misperceptions, betrayals and maybe – just maybe – the truth. But each time the strings stretch enough for us to almost see … the weave closes tight again.”
DiDonna and Seminole State take on an interesting challenge in “Rimers of Eldritch,” and not just in putting 17 actors on the stage. The story isn’t linear – it moves back and forth between the past and present, meaning that Wilson is far more demanding of his audience than the likes of “The Sound of Music” ever will be.
Likewise, the stage inside the college’s theater isn’t an especially large one, so there’s no attempt to segment past and present across different parts of the stage – making it easier for the audience to follow the shift from current day to what lead up to the attack on the young woman. The actors move in close proximity to one another, so past and present often blur. This is not a play where you sit back, relax, and wait to be entertained in light, airy ways.
On the other hand, the buildup to the tense and shocking climax makes the ride worth it, especially in the hands of a talented cast that allows DiDonna to guide them on this brooding, episodic journey.
At the heart of the play is the sexual awakening of two teenagers – yet another reminder of the parallels with “Blue Velvet,” and the sexual tension hiding beneath the surface of small town “innocence” — beautifully played by Zachary Lane as Robert Conklin and Nichole Auger as Eva Jackson. Both are students at Seminole State, another pleasant reminder of Central Florida’s unique position as a magnet for genuine acting talent.
Paul Luby also does an excellent job as Skelly Mannor, the homeless derelict who at times seems a bit scary, while at other moments the harassment he endures is cruel — and hardly befitting of a good “Christian” town. Another fine performance comes from Gloria Duggan as Mary Windrod, the dotty old woman who seems to fly off on rampling tangents. Then again, the entire cast works seamlessly together.
“The Rimers of Eldritch” has often been compared to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which also features a large cast operating in small town America. But Wilder’s play is much more innocent, and, again, I wonder sometimes if David Lynch didn’t see Wilson’s play and think about it while writing the script for “Blue Velvet.” In any event, Wilson’s challenging script, brought to life by a very creative director and an energetic cast, makes it a tough form of entertainment to beat.
“The Rimers of Eldritch” is being performed at Seminole State College this weekend, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. The college is at 100 Weldon Boulevard in Sanford. For reservations, call 407-708-2040.
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