When we are allowed to reside, for a time, in in-between spaces there is a thrill that occurs, giving us the freedom to explore what might happen if we indulged in our deepest wishes. This is why we travel, why we get lost, and why the motel room has gained a mythic status as a site for transgression and potential revelation. These one-off nights on the way to our final destination always seem a bit surreal, from the tiny bars of soap, to the already-made bed, to the noises on the other side of the wall. It is this in-between space, between home and somewhere else, that we often consider how our deepest fantasies, as sordid as they may be, might be realized.
The roadside motel, a familiar structure in the landscape of Americana, is the setting for Peggy Stafford’s new play Motel Cherry, which serves as the vehicle for a group of vastly disparate and off-kilter individuals to encounter each other over the course of one night. The guests of Motel Cherry are all coming from some other place on the way to another; the specifics are less important, what is important is that they’ve all ended up, perhaps by chance, in this dive motel run with feverish devotion by owner Albert, who will gladly direct you to the ice machine. Motel Cherry is abundant in ice.
As Albert narrates how he co-founded the motel with his mother, we are introduced to the bizarre guests: Mrs. Johnson, a lonely animal fanatic and a regular at the motel; Reverend Joe, who is constantly being tested by his higher power, his wife Linda, who hasn’t been receiving the marital favors she’d like; John, a grizzly bear-fearing truck driver and his chain-smoking wife Patty, who desperately wants to get pregnant; Mark, a traveling salesman pushing copy machines; Joan, a down-on-her-luck waitress escaping from her abusive boyfriend; and finally, Lynette, a mysterious teenager, from whose room ominous sounds are emitting. Not long after we meet these eccentric characters, the play dives into the magical, transporting us into their individual fantasies and obsessions. The convening of this unlikely group opens up as a chance for confrontation and destiny. Objects throughout the play (little bars of soap, a lost and found glass dragonfly) take on the role of totems for unfulfilled wishes. As they negotiate their rooms (Mark cannot get his TV remote to work) and their love lives (Patty switches rooms to escape her bear-paranoid husband), the characters are forced to reckon with their newly found temporary neighbors.
And as the night goes on, the guests grow increasingly concerned about the attendant in room “Red Dot,” and as to what the strange mournful cries from the behind the door might mean. The play grows closer in on itself as each of the guests must confront each other in their joint curiosity. What exactly is happening on the other side of the thin motel walls? And do we want to know?
What I loved most about this play is that playwright Stafford presents complicated, messy characters with such wholeheartedness. She is able to do this and tap into a magical realism of her own, without any irony or force. This is something to admire. She has written characters that could easily be performed with two-dimensionality, but the incredibly adept ensemble has crafted them with texture and pliability. The cast transcends the potential trappings that the work could present, making the fantastical aspects of the play feel unassuming and natural.
These are truly top-notch performances by an ensemble that warrant witnessing. I don’t remember the last time I saw an ensemble perform seemingly absurd situations with such stealth, sincerity, and camaraderie. They are comprised of Noel Joseph Allain (Reverend Joe), Francis Benhamou (Linda), Eboni Booth (Lynette), Steven Boyer (Albert), Boo Killebrew (Joan), Linda Marie Larson (Mrs. Johnson), DJ Mendel (John), Mike Shapiro (Mark), and Monique Vukovic (Patty). Of particular note, Benhamou gives a pitch-perfect comedic performance as Linda. And Booth’s portrayal of Lynette gives the play an emotional punch that grounds the events. Booth must accomplish quite a feat here. Without giving anything away—it’s a remarkable moment and as is the case with true ensemble work it is supported by the entire company.
Meghan Finn has directed the production with a swift hand and you can see her work throughout as the piece moves fluidly in and out of motel rooms, constantly changing perspective. It is as if we are gazing on through the lens of a camera. Daniel Zimmerman’s impressive set solves the constant movement of the play, evoking the iconography of motels we’ve all spent passing nights in. As a part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, Motel Cherry only has one weekend left and if you want a see a definition of exemplary ensemble work, I would not miss this one.