Local playwright Bruce Graham is serving up a slightly undercooked yet intriguing drama with the world premiere of his Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown, the final production of People’s Light & Theatre Company’s 2011-12 season.
The first work by Graham since his award-winning The Outgoing Tide— which captured Chicago’s prestigious Jefferson Award for best new play and made its local debut earlier this season at Philadelphia Theatre Company—Mr. Hart & Mr. Brown is set in tiny Homer, Neb. “For once, I wanted to write something different that doesn’t take place in Philly,” Graham told PW. It’s actually the second consecutive play that he’s set beyond Philly’s city limits, though in Outgoing Tide , which takes place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the city still figures prominently in the lives of the characters.
Hart & Brown begins in the 1960s in the home of a local historian, played by a delightfully eccentric Peter DeLaurier. An opinionated but likable elderly gentleman, the historian’s recollections transport us back to the 1920s and an Indian reservation on the outskirts of Homer. It’s there we encounter the play’s three primary characters: the revered local sheriff Mr. Hart (Christopher Patrick Mullen in one of his finer performances), a young, ambitious newspaper reporter named Ambrose Healey (up-and-comer Michael Doherty) and the mysterious city slicker Mr. Brown, given voice by versatile veteran actor Richard Ruiz.
Although Graham has mentioned that Hart & Brown grew out of his interest in investigating whether violent tendencies are ingrained in one’s DNA or a result of being raised in a violent environment, in director Pete Pryor’s production, the nature/nurture debate is just one of the many dualities explored. Reality and illusion, fact and fiction, good and evil and truth versus deceit are all placed under Graham’s microscope. It’s the sort of exploration Henrik Ibsen may have imagined when he pioneered the notion of dramatic realism, which approached the stage as a kind of laboratory from which to examine human behavior.
Perhaps the most gripping element in Graham’s play is its depiction of identity as a kind of performance. In Hart & Brown, all the world’s a stage, and the two primary characters are each playing a carefully cultivated role. For both Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown, perception trumps reality, and the media are a means to project their chosen images on an unsuspecting world that accepts anything in print as gospel.
Conversely, the idealistic Ambrose fancies himself a champion for truth. What he soon discovers is that his noble pursuit is at odds with his desire to land a good story, a circumstance he hopes will translate into a job at The New York Times. In a newspaper, however, heroes and villains are easy to identify, and by the play’s end, Ambrose learns that the divide between saints and sinners is not always clearly defined.
Pryor’s steady, well-acted production efficiently brings all the ideas in Graham’s play to light. Scott Anderson’s period costumes, along with Matt Saunders’ sepia-toned scenic design, do well at establishing the 1920s era, and Christopher Colucci’s appropriately understated sound design effectively supports the rural setting.
Unlike most new plays that undergo a rigorous development process, Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown received relatively few readings before its People’s Light debut. There is a lot to like in Graham’s play, but occasionally the plot slackens, and the story loses its momentum. One suspects that if the play were shortened slightly from its current two-act, near two-hour running time, Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown may be a more focused—and subsequently compelling—theater experience.
Through Aug. 19. $25-$45. People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. 610.644.3500. peopleslight.org