Once we leave the Big City to spend the weekend at Deirdre's house in the Catskills, it may seem as if all the cultural opportunities just dry up. This is definitely not so! Last night we saw a wonderful one-person show by our friend Richard Hoehler at the historic and charming Tusten Theatre in Narrowsburg.
Deirdre has known Richard since her days in the theatre, and she took me to one of his Off Broadway performances a few years ago. Richard writes and performs monologues, often from the perspective of people juggling their blue-collar jobs with personal crises. Many of the monologues performed last night originated in his earlier one-person shows Human Resources and Working Class.
In Richard Hoehler: For Real, the stage has been stripped down to a single stool, there are no costume changes, and all the props are in a small wooden box. In last night's performance, Richard introduced each of the five monlogues to discuss its origin and evolution.
Richard began with a powerhouse: a man giving an extended qualification at an A.A. meeting where he starts by talking about his alcoholic father, and ends with a confrontation with his teenage son — a kind of "cycle of life" of alcoholism and domestic violence.
The second piece seemed to lighten up the tone, but rather deceptively. The setup is a bit involved: The speaker works as a caterer, and apparently he had a recent gig catering for the cast and crew of a play. Some of his cutup behavior prompted someone to term him a "natural" and invite him to audition for a new production of Hamlet. He's supposed to be trying out for the comic role of the Gravedigger, but instead someone has handed him Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech. That's the setup, and as the caterer struggles with the unfamiliar protocols of the theatrical audition, his attempts to interpret the language, and ultimately his dissatisfaction with his own life and job, we begin to think that just maybe this guy's recent life experiences have made him the right man for the title role.
The third piece is the most emotionally draining of the evening: The manager of an urban department store sits outside the store announcing sales over a loudspeaker, but is freqently interrupted by a cell phone that drags him further and further into coming to grips with the fact that his estranged younger brother is dying of AIDS.
The fourth piece lightened up the tone again: A somewhat demented TV weatherman, stuck on public access after being fired from a real job, is driven to paroxysms of joy in anticipation of an upcoming 40-inch projected snowfall. Even as we're laughing at the weatherman's manic hymns to the pleasures of snow, we are astonished by his wisdom. We need snow, he says, so we can help our neighbors dig their cars out, get their groceries, and shovel their sidewalks. Snow, in other words, is the motivation of charity and love.
Richard introduced the last piece of the evening by noting how media portrayals of gay people had changed just in the past few years, from the silliness of some TV shows (e.g. Will & Grace) to the realism and emotional honesty of Brokeback Mountain. The monologue was more subdued than the others, and yet oddly haunting. The gay owner of a diner waits inside a funeral home to give his condolences to the wife of a truck driver who used to eat at his place. This trucker was a little different than the others. He didn't boast of his sexual conquests, or make lewd comments about women, or make fun of the gay man behind the counter. Could he have been? But he's just not sure.
In other hands, this genre of first-person monologues sometimes lends itself to virtuosic ethnic accents, satire, and even cruel mockery. But Richard Hoehler wisely stays away those treacherous areas, relying more on the skill of his writing than any ability to do funny voices, and focusing more on imbuing his characters with a deep humanity. He cares deeply about each of the characters he inhabits, and so do we.