Bruce Gooch's latest production,"Dirt," which opened Thursday at 1857 White Mountain Highway in North Conway, is an actor's show. "Dirt," which is light on plot, is a character-driven play that allows its three-person cast to dig in and grow rich, memorable characters.
Farmer Sonny (Dan Tetreault) is preparing for the new planting season, but following the death of his wife, his memory has become increasingly fractured. His estranged son Zach (Jason Stevens), a veteran of the Iraq War, comes home to help his aging father. As Sonny's dementia becomes worse, Zach promises his father that he will see one more harvest before he is put into a home.
Added to the mix is Ellie (Melanie Perkins), a waitress at the local diner who occasionally checks in on Sonny because he is one of her favorite regulars.
In terms of plot, that's really all there is, which may make Bruce Gooch's play seem as if it is lacking in complexity. Some reviews of the original production in 1994 dismissed the play as "cliche" and "paint-by-numbers," but focusing on the story structure is a mistake. There's nothing wrong with a simple story told well.
The themes of "Dirt" — a troubled father-son relationship and coming to terms with the past, while embracing an unknown future — may be familiar, but they are presented with authenticity and passion. Director Eric Jordan has taken this material and made it flourish.
Tetreault is nothing short of amazing as Sonny. He makes his slow descent into senility equal parts funny and tragic but never trite or insincere. Tetreault portrays a full range of emotions — anger, wistfulness, confusion and love for his land, his wife and even his son. Every moment feels genuine. Sonny's bewilderment is palpable.
In Tetreault's eyes you can see when Sonny is lost, whether it be blissfully in some faraway happy memory or painfully struggling to remember what he was just doing. The play's final moments feel strikingly real.
Stevens matches Tetreault note for note. Zach is a reactive character who responds to Sonny's erratic and irrational behavior. Much of the role requires Zach to be alternately annoyed, angry and amused by Sonny's antics. In lesser hands, the performance could come across as one-note, but Stevens finds the truth in the role.
Through subtle vocal inflections, gestures and the way he carries himself, Stevens is able to hint at things unsaid in the dialogue. Despite Zach's frustration and bitterness toward Sonny, Stevens is able to project a warmth and loyalty that overcomes everything else.
Perkins' role is smaller but no less significant. Mike Giuliano of Variety wrote of a production in 1994 that Ellie "seems like a bald attempt to infuse some third-party complexity into what remains essentially a two-hander." That is an overly cynical read of the character. Ellie brings another and necessary perspective to the proceedings. As things take a turn for the worse, she becomes a calming voice of reason.
Ellie banters with both Sonny and Zach, and pulls out emotions and thoughts that otherwise would lay dormant. Perkins brings a tenderness and gentle sense of humor to the role. She makes Ellie approachable and easy to talk to, allowing the men to open up to her.
While much of Gooch's script deals with heavy emotions, several scenes earn big laughs, including Sonny taking a bath in a water trough and Zach making a horse out of random farm parts. There's a perfect comic moment when Zach succinctly shuts down Sonny before he has a chance to start on what would inevitably be a long ramble about potatoes.
These moments of humor don't feel like drastic tonal shifts because each flows naturally from the material.
This all plays out against a ramshackle farmstead set designed by Deb Jasien, who also designed the original production's set. It perfectly captures the fading memories of not only the farm, but Sonny's mind.
"Dirt," which is playing Thursday through Sunday for the next two weeks, is an engaging acting showcase with humor, heart and humanity.
For more information or tickets, call (603) 733-5275 or visit www.mdplayhouse.com