by Sheldon Gleisser
Perhaps the safest way to review Red Herring's production of "Dirt," written by Creighton James and directed by Amanda Phillips, is to say that it's about two brothers intent on digging up the body of their dead father.
No, it's NOT an adaptation of a Stephen King story! 7 years ago, brothers Rusty (Samuel Patridge) and Jimmy (Benjamin Turner) carried out a do-it-yourself euthanasia on their aged to-the-point-of-pain pater familias. With a highway soon coming right through their former property, the boys would just as soon dispose of the bones themselves in order to avoid awkward questions.
Shy introvert Rusty seems the nicer of the two, particularly when compared with the cruder and more fiery tempered Jimmy. But as this rather twisty play unfolds, a lot of preconceived notions will be shattered, both for the brothers and for the audience.
I didn't know much more than that going in, and I will afford you the same courtesy. I can tell you that "Dirt" is an intense, often funny, often moving evening at the theater, done with all the scrappy panache expected in a Red Herring production.
This is the world premiere of an original script that playwright James has honed to a knife's edge. It seems a bit Sam Shepard, but James eschews the pretentiousness that so marred much of Shephard's later work. There might be something rather profound going on here, and the play's title seems to echo the American connection to land as well as to often painful hidden truths.
Director Phillips knows how to stage a scene and ratchet up tension. She keeps “Dirt” moving along at a good clip, and has directed her actors to performances that are both energetic and subtle.
As Rusty and Jimmy, Patridge and Turner inhabit not only their own characters, but more important, portray their sibling angst in a way that seems effortless and natural. There really IS no play without these guys convincing you that they are brothers who love each other on some level, if they can ever get past the layers of resentment and impoverishment that growing up poor and rural has troweled on to their souls.
Hopefully it's not giving too much away to say that it would not have been the same play without Sarah Vargo's excellent fight choreography. Because you can't cut away for reaction shots, or angle the fighters so that perspective can sell the blows the way you might in a movie, fight choreography for the stage can be a difficult thing. Ms. Vargo (along with Patridge and Turner) did an outstanding job of convincing me that every blow landed.
And that set! I realize the year is young, but I can't imagine that Steve Emerson, who designed, and Will Bro, who constructed, won't be remembered for having created one of the great sets in Columbus theater in 2019. It is not only filled with the titular dirt, items are excavated from said soil, it is dug into, and thrown around. This viewer was always convinced he was looking at a backyard in some Red State bastion. I sure wouldn't want to be the guy to have to strike THAT set! I wouldn't even want to be the guy to re-set it for the next day! Many kudos to Emerson and Bro.
"Dirt" is running Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, and Sunday at 2:00 at the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 Rich Street, 43215 through March 3rd. It is a riveting thriller, an excellent character study, and a showcase for some terrific acting. I say grab your shovels and check it out!