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Theater Mon Aug 27 2012

Signal Ensemble's Princes of Waco Proves Everything is Bigger in Texas

waco_1_f.jpeg
Rob Fenton (Jim) and Carolyn Braver (Esme), photo by Johnny Knight

Any sacrifice for parental love; any sacrifice to know the love a parent, no matter how wretched and unnatural that love can be, or how much one chooses soul sacrifice for.

Fritz (Joseph Stearns) is the in-the-flesh mournful prose heralded in a Hank Williams drinking song; an "old man" (as he's put in check with by those not much younger) whose official career is Perpetual Bar Fly -- holding solitary court blathering on and unsuccessfully flirting with bartender Toasty (Meredith Bell Alvarez). One could say Fritz is wasting his life away, if he had a life or desired a life's pursuit. Even in his bone-dry give-and-take with Toasty, from the beginning there's an undercurrent of rage, like the donut right beneath the glaze, you can see that rage without having to focus your site, much. Fritz's rage is born and bred in not "what should have/would have been," more like "what was supposed to be" if everybody else did what (they) were supposed to do. He's a man who never wanted nothing he could be held responsible for, but he'll gladly take -- with or without permission -- from others everything he can get his hands on that's not nailed down.

Jim's (Rob Fenton) father's funeral is today, but Jim has taken refuge in the seat at the right of Fritz. Obvious to Fritz and Toasty is that Jim's a kid, actually the freshly dead preacher's kid, and between the first and second shots of bourbon, Jim and Fritz nurture the beginning of a relationship, with Fritz sending Jim from bar to church, where Jim bitterly eulogizes his father releases the prurient secrets of church members while teenaged Esme (Carolyn Braver) solemnly looks on, taking in and studying Jim's words and anger; and seeking clarification and more when they meet as Esme makes her way to school the next day.

The attraction between Jim and Esme is a slow moving lightening bolt. His father dead, and to the "good" townspeople and his remaining family, Jim may as well be dead as well. He wants to leave Waco, he tells Fritz and Toasty; and he wants Esme to come with him, who has her schooling to finish and her widowed father to care about. Jim hangs around for awhile, becoming closer to Fritz and the bar fly life while he waits for Esme to change her mind and leave Waco with him.

The day that changes everything is the day Esme joins Jim at the bar, where she's introduced to Fritz. Toasty tells Esme she knew her deceased mother, but initially pulls away, saying nothing more, and reminding Esme that she's "a little girl" and little girls get Coca-Cola, not bourbon. Jim beams with pride at his prize in Esme, Fritz becomes nostalgic and tells Jim about the "one that got away" -- she started "seeing houses in (their) future", and Jim was never the type of guy that would concern himself with mortgage rates or The Home Depot locations. When Jim presses for details, Fritz is only willing to share that his "one shot" at happiness came to a "bad end." Fritz tells Jim that we get one shot, and advises his friend/surrogate son to wait out Esme, to leave Waco when she's ready to leave.

Jim has settled in to Fritz's advice when one night at closing time, Fritz requests a ride from Jim, with a pit stop by the local convenience store. Of course Jim returns to the car -- gun drawn, brown paper bag in cash. A young Jim loses it, but Fritz assures him there's nothing to worry about. As Fritz lets himself out of the car a few miles up the road, he advises Jim to leave town as quickly as he can. Jim doesn't leave, can't without Esme, and Fritz place an anonymous call to the police and implicates Jim as the store robber.

At the holding jail, Fritz pays a visit to Jim, who is clueless as to how he became implicate in a robbery he didn't commit and no prior knowledge of. It's almost a given that Jim will do hard time in a Texas prison, Fritz cruelly assures of this fact, while he asks Jim's assurance that Jim hasn't told the authorities who was really responsible for the robbery. Of course Jim can't do that -- Fritz has been "like a father" to him. No one is aware of Jim's fate, especially Esme, and when she comes looking for Jim at the bar a few weeks later, Fritz tells her that he "took off." When Esme talks of going to look for Jim, Fritz moves in. Esme passively protests Fritz's overtures, finally giving in when Fritz says, "If you had somewhere to go, you'd be gone by now."

A few years have passed from Jim's arrest and incarceration to Fritz's visit to the bar. Toasty greets Fritz and makes note of his frequent absences. Fritz confirms to Toasty that he's a new man now -- he's a nursing school student and he's a couple of weeks from graduation. Esme's got him on a new path; The Home Depot weekly circular and mortgage rates matter to him now. As Toasty and Fritz catch up, in walks Esme, no longer pure and simple. Her gait is mean and lean, gone is her school uniform, replaced with Forever 21's best; she's not a "little girl" anymore, the light is out of her eyes, her reality has sunk in. As she addresses Fritz, it's clear who wears the pants in the family. Toasty serves the couple their alcohol, warily shaking herself away from them and focusing on the covered stranger seated on the stool reserved for years past by Fritz.

Finally the stranger on the stool pipes up, and removes his brim -- it's Jim. He's remains playful, complimentary, exudes manhood confidence, even as Fritz recoils in fear of retribution, and weakness of age discrepancy with the now-surefooted Jim, who buys drinks all around, "forgets" to mention the details of where he's been and who and what sent him away in front of Esme and Toasty. Jim even forgives Fritz for stealing Esme away. Their friendship is rekindled, even as Esme has her doubts about Jim's return.

It soon becomes apparent Jim is not all "forgive and forget," and Fritz soon finds his life in turnaround, with Jim's return bringing back Fritz's loser-past and Jim laying it out plain that he's return for retribution and Esme. There's a score to be settled and a huge debt to be paid, perhaps a soul to be taken, and Jim's not leaving Waco again without those things. Esme is all ears, and as her own woman, there is a debt both men owe her, and in the final showdown, Esme decides she's the only collector in a shot bar in Waco.

Like the plot of PoW, the Signal Ensemble is a force to reckoned with. The cast is powerful, working off a tight script and an austere set that work in tandem to bring a successful character-driven play. We have no doubt that Stearn's interpretation of a decrepit-before-his-time Fritz, Fenton's lonely boy-to-vengeful man Jim, and Braver's little girl innocence that never had a chance Esme, are all for real. The realness of their performances is more compelling with Alvarez's Toasty as the sounding board/Greek Chorus for an ill-fated situation almost written in the stars.

Princes of Waco is great theater, and proves the saw that "everything's bigger in Texas," even on a 6' x 9' stage.

Princes of Waco plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through Sept. 22 at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Regular ticket prices are $20 for single tickets, $15 for industry/students/seniors/groups and $10 for previews. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-698-7389 or by visiting signalensemble.com.

 
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