One odd woman and one trash-talking trucker. A barren room, a dead cactus and a boarded-up window. No change of set. With these few threads, William Mastrosimone has knit such a tight character study, it’s difficult to believe something so seemingly stark could delve so deeply into issues of love, loneliness and sanity. Shrug into Mastrosimone’s The Woolgatherer at Planet Ant, through, and you might even forget you’re seated in a theater with a bathroom that’s practically onstage.
Planet Ant’s close quarters actually add to the atmosphere in its latest production. The audience is positioned around the edges of Rose’s cramped apartment — providing an intimate view as she arrives home from her job at the five-and-dime with Cliff. The two (played by Michelle Held and Ryan Carlson) stand in the doorway, whispering; for a moment, it’s easy to mistake them for lovers. Or at least to assume that they’ve sauntered back to Rose’s crib for more than just a beer and some good conversation.
When the lights go up, however, the weirdness ensues. Turns out that Cliff is there for a one-night stand. He’s a trucker with a broken rig, and he’s got some time to kill with his newfound friend while the truck is being repaired. Slam, bam, thank you, ma’am. But, although Rose invited a strange man upstairs, she is “not a slam bam.” In fact, as the first act unfolds and the sexual tension builds, Rose reveals herself as a bit of a strange bird.
“Nobody cares, so I have to care for everybody,” she says. And it’s true. She has loved so hard, she’s come unraveled. For all her moral, nurturing qualities — no drinking, no cursing, protecting all God’s delicate creatures — Rose has a few skeletons in her closet. Literally, as audiences will soon discover.
Cliff is Rose’s opposite — burly where she is slight, crude where she is prudish and decidedly self-centered where she feels the weight of all mankind’s suffering. It’s either painfully hilarious or painfully sad to watch these two characters interact in a tight space.
When Rose tells Cliff about an incident where teenagers stoned rare birds to death right in front of her eyes, she’s obviously heartbroken. He counteracts with a wisecrack about a chicken escaping from a truck in front of him, only to be crushed under the wheels of his own rig. He also tells her he’s got a crowbar in his truck.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“It’s for killing crows. … They sit on top of your truck and try to peck your eyes out.”
With her long skirt, long hair and wide eyes, Held plays Rose as childlike, fragile. In her naïveté, she believes Cliff’s stories. There may be other ways to portray the character, but it would be interesting to encounter Held in line at the supermarket, as herself, because Mastrosimone’s lines feel like they were crafted for someone who looks and carries herself like this actress.
In his army jacket and dull sweater, Carlson also looks the part of the crude trucker. And whether it’s the innovative script, the spot-on casting or both, two acts in a bleak room with these characters is somehow enthralling — from start to finish. Rose asks Cliff if she can keep his sweater at the end of Act 1. When he returns later to collect it — literally ripping her skeletons from her closet in the process — it becomes obvious that the two do have something in common. For all Rose’s nurturing extended outward and all Cliff’s self-absorption / love channeled inward, they’re still all alone in a world gone mad.
Craving understanding, they fall together. And somehow, in a stuffy room, on a pile of old sweaters, the pairing just fits.
The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone is at Planet Ant Theatre through Feb. 23. Shows are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 313-365-4948 for tickets.Kari Jones writes about theater and performance for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]