Review: West End Players Guild Presents Dystopian 'Lonesome Hollow'

 In Culture

Who has the power to decide what is art? What is a fitting punishment for sexual offenders? Does an artist who photographs nudes and sleeps with a 16-year-old model deserve the same punishment as a serial child molester? What does cruel and unusual really mean? These questions and more are posed by Lee Blessing in his play, “Lonesome Hollow,” currently playing at the West End Players Guild. In spite of script that’s frequently heavy-handed, the Guild has turned out an interesting and captivating production that warns us to beware of those who would legislate morality.

Jeff Kargus and Mark Abels in a scent from "Lonesome Hollow."

Jeff Kargus and Mark Abels in a scent from “Lonesome Hollow.” Photo by John Lamb.

Lonesome Hollow is the name of a secluded town that has been converted into a prison camp for sex offenders after they’ve served their full sentences. But rather than being released, they have been sent to Lonesome Hollow for…what? Observation? More rehabilitation? To keep them incarcerated forever away from the general population? The play is undoubtedly inspired by actual state laws that allow for the continued post-sentence incarceration of sex offenders.

Prisoner Tuck—the artist and good sex offender—is also the good prisoner who obeys the rules and causes no trouble. He’s even constructed a labyrinth which, unlike a maze that offers a choice of directions and the possibility of getting lost, features only one path that winds ultimately to its center. It is walked slowly for meditation, not for fun. You don’t have to be Robert Langdon in the “Da Vinci Code” to figure out that symbolism.

Jeff Kargus and B. Weller in "Lonesome Hollow."

Jeff Kargus and B. Weller in “Lonesome Hollow.” Photo by John Lamb.

Conversely, prisoner Nye is a rotten egg. His body can be corralled, but not his mind. Not that the wardens—who more resemble men in black than jail keepers—don’t try. He is shocked with stun guns, supplied with “drugged” cigarettes and medically incapacitated, including his wrists because he can’t stop pleasuring himself.

As Tuck (Jeff Kargus) walks the straight and narrow with the hopes of someday being released, Nye (B. Weller) verbally pokes, prods and aggravates him, partly because he just doesn’t like him, or anybody for that matter, but also as a way pass the time, the one thing Nye has plenty of. He ain’t never getting out. Tuck has some hope, but as we learn the government might have a bigger problem with Tuck’s art books of nude photographs than the consensual sex with a 16-year-old, he is given a choice: renounce his past and reject his art books by symbolically burning them for a propaganda picture, or remain in Lonesome Hollow or a place like it forever.

Mark Abels and Elizabeth Graveman in "Lonesome Hollow."

Mark Abels and Elizabeth Graveman in “Lonesome Hollow.” Photo by John Lamb.

Kargus does an admirable job, remorseful on the one hand over his character’s moment of weakness, but struggling with the concept of artistic nudes being just pornography and whether or not to burn his art books. B. Weller—who always does fine work—plays his character with an extra can of oily sleaze and manages to evolve into a semi-tragic and sympathetic figure, and it’s nearly painful to watch his flapping on the stage like a wounded seal after his wrists have been immobilized.

Mark Abels as Glover, the prison camp’s head honcho, comes off at first as the good-natured uncle, friendly, helpful, but as we will learn, hiding a sinister secret. When his true self emerges, he maintains the nice guy exterior, which makes him all the more ominous. Elizabeth Graveman plays Mills, the other government authority figure. As the opposite of Glover, she comes off as a hardliner, except she has feelings for Tuck, and therein reveals her own compassion and humanity. Rounded out the cast, Rachel Hanks plays Pearl, Tuck’s sister, who in a desperate plea to get her brother’s release, begs him to go along with the burning of his books.

Director Robert Ashton does an admirable job of lessening the impact of the script’s overt lecturing, and lights and sound by Nathan Schroeder and Josh Cook respectively are fine. Ken Clark’s set works perfectly. The labyrinth is cool, and more than once, you may feel the urge to walk itself yourself.

Overall you have to admire West End Players Guild for presenting this St. Louis premiere. There’s a line in the play that is simple, but rings so very true: You can make anything against the law.

“Lonesome Hollow” continues through October 10 at Union Avenue Christian Church in the Central West End. For information and tickets visit the West End Player’s Guild website.

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