To hear Jeff Nolan tell it, murdering Scott Sullivan was an unfortunate accident. According to Pastor Tim, it was an indiscretion. And to David, the teenager who planned Scott's death, it was a delight.
The story of Scott's grisly murder leaks out of Lummox, Texas, playwright/actor John Haubner's fictional Southern backwater, where a young boy was beaten to death because his classmates suspected that he was gay. We hear the story from the denizens of Lummox, folks who "wrote the book on family values," according to one, and who live in a place "now associated with dark things," according to another.
There's Pastor Tim, who admits in a syrupy drawl that he resents rumors that his preaching against homosexuality makes him culpable in the boy's death. And Jeff's father, who repeats time and again that "Jeff's a good kid" -- all he did was "beat up a faggot." And Jeff himself, who calmly tells us, "I didn't know it was Scott when I killed him."
Not every young actor can accomplish what Haubner does here: convincing us, with the aid of a simple prop and a different accent, that he is eight different people. With a simple pair of wire-frame glasses, he takes us from a high school playing field (where Ryan, our teen guide, recalls a childhood sports hero) to a dingy courtroom where Pastor Tim seems pleased to hear that the boys "committed their crime in the name of God." Haubner whips us abruptly from innocent, teenaged reminiscences to terrifying descriptions of a brutal murder without aid of costuming or props.
Perhaps more astonishing than his acting chops is the depth of young Haubner's writing. His earnest speeches have the quality of real-world media sound bites one minute, casual conversation the next. A subtle turn of phrase quickly distinguishes his characters, and the story they tell builds slowly, so that, by the time we meet the murderer, late in the second act, he's already a media icon for us: We've been listening to an entire town talk about him for more than an hour.
Haubner's script isn't perfect. Among the folks we meet -- and despite Haubner's assertion that Lummox is known in some circles as "the dumbest hick town in the world" -- there isn't a half-wit in the bunch. Everyone, even teenaged Hannah (who delivers the first-act-curtain huzzah), is articulate and forward-thinking. And Hannah's revelation about her brother's death is followed by a lot of flabby dialogue that undercuts the suspense her news is meant to deliver.
Under the fine direction of Wanda McHatton, Haubner supplies the spontaneity and conviction needed to override these occasional excesses. McHatton hits her stride in the second act, when she has David storm the stage, taking over each of the set pieces that "belong" to the other characters. Where she might have simply trimmed much of Hannah's monologue, or axed 79-year-old Sam's altogether, McHatton attempts to heighten reality by letting these people ramble, as real people sometimes do.
The overall result, repetitive and unruly as it sometimes may be, is wholly theatrical. Clearly inspired by the tragedies of Matthew Shepard and Columbine High (although begun before they occurred, according to the program), Lummox, Texas isn't about homosexuality per se. There are more-than-occasional references to it, but the message here is the media's culpability in hate crimes, and the irony of Nazis and born-again Christians united in hatred against the same minority. With a little polishing, Lummox, Texas has the potential to be an extraordinarily original piece of theater. It is already a riveting and shocking one.
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