There’s something touchingly itchy about the title character in the drama “Jeremiah,” receiving its world premiere at Lakewood’s Benchmark Theatre. Actor Kaden Hinkle captures the physical unease of the 14-year-old, who thrusts his hands deep into his jeans pockets, who is more comfortable gabbing with pigeons than people and whose mother split and left him and 15-year-old brother Mitchell (James Giordano) to the rough care of their father.
She departed without so much as a goodbye, which for a spell hoists above the action a question about her whereabouts before letting it fade. While the audience never sees the boys’ dad in this four-person play, we learn from his son that he has a temper and a gun safe in his closet.
That the characters here are “boys” and their nemeses — the Milko brothers — are young men is in many ways the point of local playwright Tami Canaday’s urgent, often well-acted if frustrating drama.
“Why is it in the vast majority of cases, it’s predominantly males who are involved in America’s gun violence? What is it about males and guns?” she asks, sharing her quandary in a program note. “Roughly two years ago, I started writing Jeremiah because I was curious to explore the role guns play in shaping certain boys’ and men’s perceptions of masculinity. Specifically, I was interested in the magnification of self — a vengeful self and a powerful self — that a firearm can potentially bestow … .”
When Mitchell steals a gun from a van he has broken into, he feels a surge of power. He sings the praises of this new self to his more skittish, sensitive and, frankly, scared brother. He struts. He swaggers. He pow-pow pretends as he aims the gun hither and yon. He imagines the aphrodisiac it will be.
“I like the gun. I like me with the gun. I like her with me when I have the gun,” he says about a high school crush.
Out in the woods for a target practice, however, it’s Jeremiah who takes the weapon seriously. And it’s quietly amusing that this slip of a thing is so much better than Mitchell; he’s done his homework watching YouTube videos.
Tobias (Brandon Billings) and Todd Milko (Nate Cushing) arrive on the scene in part, one feels, to soften our judgments about Mitchell and his exhausting cockiness. The Milkos are slightly older, decidedly not wiser bullies. First Tobias pressures Mitchell and Jeremiah to put in a good word for him at their father’s diner. Later, when Jeremiah lets slip that they have a gun and then tries to cover it up by mentioning their father’s safe full of them, the brothers’ fates become tragically intertwined. (That the teenagers don’t know how to interact with firearms, given their dad’s cache, seems questionable.)
After much wrangling, Mitchell rents the Milkos the stolen gun. Todd and Tobias quickly learn it belongs to a local criminal by the name of Fillmore. The twists begin to get a little knotted with dramatic gestures that feel beholden to TV crime dramas. But Hinkle’s and Giordano’s portrayal of Mitchell and Jeremiah anchors the brotherly love, rivalry and angst.
The metaphorical and seemingly psychological connection of firepower to masculinity, the gun to the penis, may bear repeating but here it feels no more illuminating than the visual and aural cacophony of clips (congressional hearings, news clips, talk TV harangues) projected on the theater’s cement floor during interstitial moments.
The media blitz of images and soundbites may provide atmospheric context for the world that Jeremiah and Mitchell — and we, the audience — inhabit, but it’s primarily assaultive and suggests the director Kate Poling and the company don’t trust the audience to already be aware of how much of a rending, noisy impasse America’s gun violence conversation appears to be.
That “Jeremiah” doesn’t offer us something fundamentally new or differently illuminating about the issue — or about young men, for that matter — becomes one of its nagging problems. And yet, while watching the one-act drama, I still felt a call to celebrate the commitment Benchmark has been making to new play development, to young actors, nascent directors and other germinating theater artists. (In June, the theater company premiered “Stonewall.”)
And if the playwright didn’t resolve her own stated quandary, she did write some arch and entertaining lines. When the annoying Tobias complains that he’ll have to go live with Todd and his older girlfriend, Todd says, “Liz would helicopter parent you into scrap metal.”
Producing new and difficult plays can be a boon. Yes, even when a work misfires.
IF YOU GO
“Jeremiah”: Written by Tami Canaday. Directed by Kate Poling. Featuring Kaden Hinkle, James Giordano, Brandon Billings and Nate Cushing. At Benchmark Theatre, 1560 Teller St., Lakewood, through Sept. 2. For tickets and info, benchmarktheatre.com.
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