By Breana Burggraff
The theater is described as a place for storytelling. With each play comes a plotline brought onstage to be showcased, emphasized, and analyzed. Despite this, some stories are perhaps too challenging to display in theatrical form. North Hennepin Community College Theatre’s Exit 27 seemed to be one of those stories better fitted for the page than the stage.
The storyline behind Exit 27 is gripping. Set in a deserted area off Exit 27, a group of boys denounced by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints fight for survival and a chance to reclaim salvation. Inspired by true events, and peppered with moments of frustration, sickness, and hopelessness, this play had the potential to break my heart.
But it didn’t.
There are many elements within this production that had potential, but they ultimately missed the mark. The set design, created by Soren Olsen, was visually appealing and embodied the harsh reality the characters were to face. The barbed wire, splintered wood, crooked picture frame, and all around decrepit look had the feeling of abandonment. Yet, its practicality proved problematic.
Sightlines for the structure did not seem plausible in a three-quarter audience seating arrangement. The sides were often a disadvantage, considering the actors were either facing the downstage side or were speaking to each other in profile. Many areas were also not well lit and although the paneling of the house-like structure provided an interesting shadowed effect, it often shaded the actors faces, making them difficult to see.
With a script full of words rather than actions (despite the first and last ten minutes), there needed to be more variation and build to make the breaking points seem authentic. Although the actors embodied a great deal of emotionality, speaking was often confined to yelling or normal volume talking. With the constant switch between the two, delivery became monotonous.
Ryker (Brandon Hawfitch) was the character who had the most versatility in delivery. The deliriousness caused by his hand injury and the soft, clearly articulated final monologue provided some contrast to the otherwise repetitive speaking patterns.
While some scenes needed an increase in interest, others needed to be stripped down to gain impact. Some of the play’s most pivotal moments that were not strewn with violence involved recollections of the past. Not only were these monologues important for exposition, but they also gave key insight into the characters’ lives. Shyler’s (Jacob Bencker) story about slaughtering the dogs for a blood sacrifice is horrifically gruesome and largely foreshadowing. It is an important connector between acts one and two, and it is the most powerful defining moment of character for Shyler. Unfortunately, unclear diction and overpowering music did not allow this moment to reach its full effect, rendering the speech and the character meaningless.
Out of all these issues with the production, the one aspect that stands above all was the audience’s inability to empathize with these characters. It is difficult to portray characters that are so far removed from the culture with which the audience accepts as normal. Considering that the people in the seats came to the theater in the first place, it is likely that most, if not all of them, have not been familiarized with the stories of the Lost Boys. Therefore, it is important to call to stage this section of people.
However, the boys’ (aside from Brodie) insistence on their faith, which is the main aspect of the play, was not convincing. Other than in the climax, which was by far the strongest aspect of the performance, there was no conviction. The actors were saying the words, but they were not embodying them.
Lines that involved their ignorance would not come off as devastating but as humorous, creating a rupture in the play’s overall effect. For example, Ryker’s line about wanting the outsider (Mathilda Elrod) to name their baby because he believed he had impregnated her is a ridiculous statement in a certain context. But when it is given by someone who has been ingrained into a way of thinking that is so disconnected from the way the world actually works, it is meant to be eye-opening. It is meant to stop the heart.
These stories are to be excruciatingly painful to hear, and although the characters claimed to be believers, they were not believable. There is much to discover about these people, much to learn. But the performance was lackluster. Next time, I may just read the program.
Written by: Aleks Merilo
Directed by: Mike Ricci
Cast: Brandon Hawfitch, Nathan Watschke, Jacob Bencker, Caid Goodwin, and Mathilda Elrod
Set Design, Lighting Design, and Technical Director: Soren Olsen
Costume Design: Laurie Olson Williams
Sound Design: Mike Ricci
Violence Design: Michael Anderson
Stage Manager: Shahd Elkhier