Marsha Norman's "The Holdup" is set in New Mexico in 1914. Although the West is no longer as wild as it was in frontier days, it's definitely wacky in this dark comedy.
That disturbingly funny tone is neatly lassoed in a sharply acted production at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.
The playwright, who is best-known for thePulitzer Prize-winning" 'Night, Mother," has a knack for creating quirky characters fully capable of giving voice to their complaints. Two young cowboys, a crusty old outlaw and an attractive woman with a heart of gold have their share of squabbles in "The Holdup." The play arguably has a longer running time than what the plot warrants, but good luck getting these characters to shut up.
One of Norman's thematic points is that her characters realize that the larger than life, near-mythic trappings of the Wild, Wild West don't exactly pertain to a World War I-era ranch that seems anything but exciting. The ranching duties of Archie Tucker (David Shoemaker) and his older brother, Henry (Zak Zeeks), are only vaguely mentioned in the script, which is mostly devoted to their caustic banter.
These brothers don't seem to have anything in common. Henry is a gruff man of relatively few words, while Archie is an easily frightened fellow whose nervous nonstop chatter makes him seem ill-suited for life on an isolated ranch.
The fact that the actors playing these roles have virtually no physical resemblance reinforces the sense that the fraternal link only exists in the most technical genetic respect. It's funny when a line of dialogue about their lack of resemblance underscores what you're already doubtless thinking.
Archie and Henry are both pretty pathetic by heroic cowboy standards. The early scenes poke fun at the gap between idealized assumptions about the tough guys who supposedly inhabited the Old West and the more mundane reality that we're shown.
Any good western needs some gun-prompted action, of course, and Norman isn't shy about living up to her play's title. A middle-aged character initially known only as The Outlaw (Frank Vince) mysteriously appears out of nowhere late at night and holds Archie and Henry at gunpoint.
If these young cowboys don't seem completely capable of living up to the rugged standards of cowboy tradition, The Outlaw does seem like a genuine bad guy whose 19th-century adventures make for an exciting biography; of course, he now seems to be riding into the 20th-century sunset.
It's significant that The Outlaw still gets around on horseback, while his lady friend, Lily (Stephanie Ranno), arrives driving a car. Likewise, the scattered references to World War I breaking out in Europe serve to remind all of them that the bigger world out there is changing faster than they can comprehend.
In any event, these people don't have too much interest in discussing that overseas war. After all, there's an old-fashioned holdup occupying their immediate attention.
The playwright similarly keeps our attention on the immediate situation; and, to her credit, Norman does not shy away from depicting a violent act and its dramatic consequences. This play's dramatic and comic elements manage to live together on stage, which certainly keeps you watching.
What also makes the production directed by Michael Spellman worth watching is that the actors thoroughly inhabit their characters. David Shoemaker gives a first-rate performance as the perpetually worrying Archie. Indeed, Shoemaker's perspiration-soaked shirt will make you worry about how many miles it is to the nearest laundromat in sparsely populated New Mexico.
"The Holdup" runs through July 29 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.