What can a high school football coach accused of murdering his star player, a lawyer trying to advance her career, and a young girl who has suffered paternal abuse (and more) teach us about right and wrong? For starters: The definition is entirely subjective. The audience will take at least this much away from the new Off-Off Broadway play, The Girl From Nashville, written by Steven Walters.
No matter which character's eyes you see the situation through, the level of guilt we attribute to convicted coach Weldon (played by Brad Makarowski) will surely shift throughout the performance. The play jumps between the present-day interrogation room to his past recollections of hiding in a motel room with his 18-year-old student, Lissie (played by Erin Wilhelmi); the scenes gradually reveal the motives underlying his ostensibly inhumane act. When all the pieces of his puzzle are in place, his culpability may not be as easy to calibrate as one might expect. Who, then, is the true evil-doer? With an impressive use of a bedroom-sized theater, strong direction by Kristine Ayers, and smooth transitions between scenes, the five-actor cast reminds us that the answer to this question is ultimately yours. You must decide.
Though the writing and acting do, at times, find comfort in clichés (Makarowski's emotional expression is at times contrived and the revelation about Lissie's fate in the second act is melodramatic), their main message is not lost: We all go to extreme lengths to protect what we hold dear, and when those things are violated, we seek retribution. For Weldon's public defense lawyer (played by Jessica Renee Russell) this means garnering a good reputation and enough money to properly raise her child. For Weldon, this means punishing the boy who harms the girl he cares for. As for the cops, not to mention the parents of the murdered boy, this means securing Weldon's death sentence.
"The world treats you the way you deserve to be treated," Weldon reminds us in the beginning of the first act. If this entails facing the consequences of one's actions, justifiable or not, then surely our main character is no hypocrite. Concluding whether Weldon is a hero or a villain, however, is not as clear-cut. At least, not to those characters forced to consider how they would respond in Weldon's place, nor to the audience who watch his story unfold.
The Girl From Nashville is playing at the Dorothy Streslin Theatre in New York City (312 West 36th Sreet at 8th Avenue), December 3 through December 18, 2010. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased on www.smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444.