Half a century ago, when it still felt like this country could save itself from self-destruction, a presidential candidate who didn’t hate the idea of government, whom no one accused of hoping to destroy the country he wanted to lead, was nevertheless met with a damning question: Would you buy a used car from this man?
Playwright Eric Samuelsen has chosen the ultimate American symbol of corruption for both the setting and the protagonist of Borderlands, his latest play now in performance at Plan-B Theatre. After all, why should we fear enemies from without when the real terrorists are right here, undermining our virtue and money and messing with the most precious symbol of our virility: our cars? As a dramatic symbol, the used car salesman and his lot are rich with possibilities. But as a dramatic vehicle, they are even richer. After all, who hasn’t sat in a parked car, perhaps at the side of the road or at its end, whether before setting off or after arriving, and held a conversation that belongs in a boudoir or confessional, speaking urgent or casual personal truth and expecting our interlocutor to do the same? Our wheels are a metaphor for ourselves, after all. Their exteriors are the way we want to present ourselves, the illusion with which we advance into the world, while their interiors are where we express our psychic truth: a living room of plush upholstery, a place we keep cleaner than our kitchens, or where we surround ourselves with the comfort of self-indulgent squalor. Anyone who messes with this intimate chemistry risks coming between ourselves and our illusions.
Thus Dave, the bored husband and attorney who casually destroyed his perfect life when he could no longer pretend it fulfilled his dreams. Having failed to provide himself with a safety net, he went into free fall until he was rescued by his sister, Phyllis, who provides him the bare minimum of a life. It’s not that she’s uncharitable; she offers him nothing less than she permits herself. This is a story of people on the edge, and so it’s not surprising that Gail, an alienated wife and uncertain mother, who needs a car for herself because she’s giving whatever she has left to her daughter, has almost no money to spend. Caught in the downward spiral of single motherhood, she will only make her situation worse by taking in Brian, her nephew whose parents need a vacation from his struggles to make the transition into adult life. These four will gather together, in cars, on the lot, in the office, in various pairs and, most memorably, all four in one car in a rainstorm, and tear at each other in a search for salvation and separate peace. What they find will break us a little, and then mend us. Because life inflicts wounds that do not heal, we learn the metaphor of car maintenance: it’s not so important that things be perfect; a little body putty can cover up and let us get on with it, so long as we free ourselves of our illusions and never forget what lies beneath.
Among the creative artists of Plan-B, Randy Rasmussen has turned a few symbolic items into a set onto which the actors project what we need to see. His elegant rendering of cars is particularly effective. Phillip Lowe’s costumes feel at times like auxiliary characters in the play; at one point, Dave actually introduces his attire to us. Cheryl Ann Cluff’s sound design and Jesse Portillo’s lights never call attention to themselves, but expertly generate the changing outdoor environment.
In the first scene, that means ‘sunlight’ bright enough to cause sweat on the expansive forehead of Kirt Bateman, who plays Dave. Since I don’t believe an actor can sweat on cue, noticing Dave’s response challenged my belief for a moment. It was the last time, though. I believe in live theater, yet I struggle with the distractions of its artificiality. But not here. Teri Cowan’s ailing Phyllis, Stephanie Howell’s frightened-but-determined Gail, and Topher Rasmussen’s preternaturally mature Brian, whose circumstances have forced him to grow up unnoticed, dig into each other’s secrets with convincingly alternating levels of interest and self-service. Samuelsen has balanced his characters and their revelations precisely, and director Jerry Rapier keeps that balance in play to the astonishing conclusion.
As a critic, I feel it’s my job to balance my response, as well. But this play all-but sold out before it opened, so great is the expectation of Plan-B’s audience. In fact, an extra performance has already been scheduled for Sunday, April 10. So why am I writing about a play you are probably already going to see, or else have little chance of getting into? The answer is this: do whatever it takes to get to Borderlands. Buy a ticket if you can find one. Stand outside the theater offering to buy any unused tickets. Badger the box office. But see this play. Issues become propaganda and manipulation in the mouths of craven politicians and entertainers who masquerade as pundits, but here they come back to life, and sitting in the dark we realize it is not demons who confront us, but living beings like ourselves to whom we must appeal, but who also require our merciful intervention.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.