Richard Maxwell uses a stylized hyperrealism to expose uncomfortable truths and contradictions in his characters. He often casts non-professional actors, stripping away the veneer of well-made performances in favor of a raw and often awkward delivery of lines. He also usually directs his plays making his latest, Samara (helmed by Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson), a departure.
Benson, who’s known for wildly imaginative and transformative productions like An Octoroon, has crafted an immersive setting that sucks the viewer in like a black hole. Scenic designer Louisa Thompson has fashioned the set and audience seating out of black plastic food crates, creating a monochromatic darkness for us to trudge through with deadpan narration provided by musician and sometimes actor Steve Earle who also composed the atmospheric score.
Samara is a journey play that often feels stagnant. It opens with a young messenger (Jasper Newell) seeking to collect a debt he’s owed from a supervisor (Roy Faudree). Instead he receives the right to collect another person’s debt in a distant town. When he arrives there’s a dispute if the debt is owed and a lack of desire to pay it. In both of these situations, violence erupts suddenly and is soon regretted. There are cowboys but no clear villains or heroes. Also absent are clear resolutions.
Earle stands center stage in front of a music stand for most of the show. Clad in black he exudes a western outlaw vibe more than any of the characters but his role is that of an objective observer who mainly reads stage directions. Narrators usually function as a unifying force and act as our guide through the world, but there’s little guidance to be found.
John Ford’s classic western film The Searchers centered on a compulsion to rescue that overshadowed question of whether a rescue is needed. The characters in Samara wander, their goals obscured by regret or a general lack of purpose. The existential despair coursing through the dry desert air is palpable. The person the messenger is searching for, Manan (Becca Blackwell), is of illusive gender, but it’s soon clear there are far more mysteries inside this character. Blackwell, a trans actor who prefers “they” pronouns, mines a multitude of ambiguities.
Manan’s friendship with a drunk (Paul Lazar) is one of the richest interactions in the play with echoes of Beckett’s ability to immerse the audience in the quiet horror of going nowhere. In one of the first scenes between the two, Earle delivers a heartbreaking line disguised as a stage direction: “the drunk has been drinking.” As much as we may want to, we don’t change. We get locked into patterns, comforted by their routine and too scared to break away from them.
Towards the end of the play, there’s a beautiful moment where the stage is dark while Earle reads a descriptive passage of the landscape. All of a sudden, clouds appear, and it’s as if we are floating above all of the limitations that acted as cages for these characters and for a brief moment there is utter clarity.