Rantoul and Die

Neil Simon meets Sam Shepard in Mark Roberts’ Rantoul and Die. And the pairing is a happy one in this propulsive production by The Amoralists. Known for the raw emotionality and physicality of its performance style and material, this fast-rising, seven-year-old downtown theatre company finds rich fodder for its method in Roberts’ script.

It depicts four people living on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, forced  or stumbling into extreme solutions to their problems. And it‘s enlivened by unexpected bursts of black humor that come gurgling up like bubbles in a cesspool. Roberts is a writer who obviously knows his way around a gag line. He is the creator of television’s Mike & Molly and before that was an executive producer on an even more successful sitcom, Two and a Half Men. And this work for the stage, which has seen earlier productions in Chicago and Los Angeles, seems to allow him the freedom to exhibit his even grittier inclinations, studding his dialogue with the now-quotidian “F” word.

The Rantoul of the title is a real place, a small town in central Illinois, left economically battered by the closing of an Air Force base in the 1990s. The pivotal character is Debbie (Sarah Lemp), a once wild girl of the town, now striving to build a career as assistant manager of the local Dairy Queen. She’s also seeking a divorce from her milksop of a husband, Rallis (Derek Ahonen), whom she simply can no longer abide.

As the play opens, the desperately unhappy Rallis has just attempted suicide, but has been pulled from the tub where he’s cut his wrists by his buddy Gary (Matthew Pilieci). The unstoppably loquacious Gary is trying to talk Rallis into staying alive, arguing that his suicide attempt wasn’t sincere and was merely a “cry for help.” Nevertheless, once Debbie makes it home from work and is relentless about her desire for a divorce, Rallis ends the act by again attempting suicide, this time shooting himself in the head -- twice.

In the second act, the black humor mounts, and we also to get to meet Callie (Vanessa Vaché), the sweet-natured but somewhat odd manager of the Dairy Queen who under twisty circumstances moves even deeper into Debbie's life. We also learn more about the motives of the duplicitous Gary.

But what’s really important in the script are the laugh lines craftily inserted into the dialogue and the terrific chortle-inducing set pieces that Roberts hang on his credulity-straining story. Among them are Gary’s tale of how he finally almost makes out with a high-school crush from his past, Debbie’s mean telling of how a group of developmentally-challenged kids is given a day at the Dairy Queen, Callies’ ecstatic rhapsodizing about the humanitarian satisfactions of working at the Dairy Queen, which we are constantly told with pride is a “flagship Dairy Queen,” and finally, Callie‘s deadpan confession of a gruesome episode from her past.

Under Jay Stull’s smart direction, the four Amoralists ensemble members totally inhabit their roles.  Lemp wonderfully reveals a compelling vulnerability within the hard-edged Debbie, and her description of how she once took care of a wounded duck is surprisingly moving and funny at the same time. In masterful contrast, there are Vaché’s hints of a fierce willfulness beneath Callie’s angelic demeanor. However, Pilieci and Ahonen, who are both founders and associate artistic directors of the company, seemed at the start to be relying too heavily on exaggerated down-home twangs for humor, but my discomfort subsided as their characterizations took hold. And Alfred Schatz’s cluttered set -- with its broken walls, displaced door and thrift-store furniture -- aptly underscores the disarray of their lives.