Barter Theater Performance of “October, Before I Was Born” — Reviewed by John J. Hohn

John J. Hohn, Reviewer

The play October, Before I was Born, a gritty drama directed by Mary Lucy Bevins, takes place on October 4, 1960 with the explosion at the Aniline Building at the Tennessee Eastman Company complex. Conveniently, the television is disabled at Martha Matthews’ residence, which program notes tell the audience is a home supported by blue collar wages. The telephone, that marvel of the past century, is a holdover from the World War II era of party lines, which makes it impossible to place an emergency call. The audience gets it, quickly. This family, with the lives of loved ones at stake, has no way of knowing whether those closest to them have survived what the radio announcer, before he signed off, described as a holocaust.

Anne, portrayed by Ashley Compos, is seven months pregnant and was attending her baby shower when the shock waves from the explosion ended her party and wiped out half the town as well. She was rushed to her mother-in-law’s home which is also home to Houston, a convicted killer, who is on the lam sucking up whatever mom and dad can hand out, a position that fails somehow to restrain him from coming on to his brother’s wife in the midst of her distress. Martha, the mother-in-law, played by Tricia Matthews, is a durable country woman who holds her own in life because of the coping strategies she learned growing up as a coal miner’s daughter. She avoids. Her own husband may be a victim in the explosion, but she chooses instead to focus on Ann’s toe nail polish. “Strength and courage,” she proclaims, as the answer to Anne’s distress as well as her own in dealing with the long wait to find out whether their husbands are going to come home on both feet or in a box.

Here, the script fails. “Strength and courage!” Really? Think about it. Courage without strength is foolhardy. Strength without courage is a waste. Perhaps there is room somewhere in this redemptive formula for perspective beyond a fatalistic stoicism. “You can do this!” Martha encourages Anne as they head out the door for the delivery room. Anne is already in labor, and nobody doubts that she can see things through because, face it folks, she has no other choice.

Houston, the son, is played by Nicholas Piper who treats his role with a casualness that belies his character’s own history. The audience needs to be told that he is a killer and capable of spontaneous, uncontrollable rage. Nothing in Piper’s performance demonstrates this side of the man’s nature. The play takes place in the back country of Tennessee. Piper and the cast play it as if they were on the set to Happy Days, all scrubbed up and running errands for one another. Director Blevins missed the depravity of Houston’s attempt at seducing his brother’s wife. She missed the wife’s repugnance at his advance. Houston, his mother proclaims, failed to complete anything that he had attempted. Yet she treats him with an enabling tolerance that hardly seems in keeping with her awareness that getting from one day to the next requires toughness of spirit.

While Houston strolls about the set, fetching sodas and making sandwiches, the play is really about two women in the story. Anne should have been transformed from a whining narcissistic adolescent into a woman finally capable of facing life with the responsibilities that her mother-in-law sets in front of her. Martha, the mother, grimly aware from her childhood of how grief stalks her hard scrabble existence, should have shown her avoidance strategies collapsing into the terror of facing life without her husband. Both actors’ performances fell short of the mark. Anne’s insistence, “I can’t do this,” is treated as humor as it is obvious that, big as a house, she is going to have a baby. The challenge in the line was go beyond the humor to the desperation in the denial and the awakening in the character that none of us can have life as we want it.

Martha’s hopeful description of how life as usual will resume again when her husband returns home fails to convey how she, as the rest of us do, avoids thinking about the threats to our happiness by hiding in the mundane and predictable events of our daily lives. The challenge was to let the audience know that, regardless of how ordinary our lives are, every day is more special for never letting the awareness of that precariousness to drift completely out of mind.

This play skimmed the surface of what was, admittedly, a contrived script but it could have been powerful if the characters had realized the depths of the playwright’s intentions. For good reason, audiences are not often asked to sit through a 90 minute one-act play—that one act being all the longer for pauses that had the audience wondering if the professionals on stage had forgotten their lines. Regrettably, the gutsy script dissolved into sentimental slush under Director Blevins. It will probably be well attended and pass along in the history of The Barter Theater of one of its less notable productions.