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South Dakota

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 31, 2013

South Dakota

Bill Griffin in a scene from South Dakota

At one point in South Dakota, Curly, one of the play's central characters, observes that his life story is the stuff of Greek tragedy—a family curse, bloody accidents, early deaths, and so on. What's most intriguing about R.W. Weingartner's play is how ordinary and humble all of this feels in its American Heartland context. Americans have always been casual about having everything they need; the way that we take so much for granted—and the way that this attitude somehow diminishes us, makes us less grand—seems to be a key theme in this resonant, lyrical work.

South Dakota tells the story of an American family, or what's left of it, anyway: Bud, once an economist, works an ancestral farm in the eponymous Plains state, with his son Curly. Curly's mom moved to Chicago after she divorced Bud. Bud's brother Earl died in a car crash years ago and their sister Dot died about a decade after that; Earl's daughter Priscilla now lives with Bud and Curly. (Priscilla lost an eye in the auto accident that killed her parents.)

There are two other characters in South Dakota—Judd, about the same age as Curly and Priscilla, a neighbor; and the spirit of an Indian girl who was killed in a massacre on this land more than a hundred years before. She provides a visceral, if ethereal, reminder of what's been lost as Americans claimed and worked the land they took for their destiny.

Not much happens in the play, but a lot of time and ground gets covered. Curly and Priscilla's childhoods and their unique relationship occupy most of the narrative, which is told mostly in direct address and only occasionally in more conventional scenes involving multiple characters. As directed (eloquently, thoughtfully) by Mitchell Conway, we're always aware of the aloneness of the characters, and of the ways they seek meaningful connection with each other, with the land, and with the universe.

The stagecraft here is excellent. Luke Santy provides live accompaniment on guitar and also operates the sound board from a corner of the stage; his contributions to the mood and environment are vital. Joie Bauer's lighting is equally evocative and invaluable. Conway's production is spare and stark, with no real set to speak of and just a few vivid, surprising props; the minimal budget associated with indie theater here sparks invention and fuels simplicity that suits the material beautifully.

The five actors do fine work. William Tatlock Green, as Bud, creates a fully-dimensional, sad man, haunted by circumstance and ghosts. Bill Griffin, as Curly, anchors the play with unexpected strength and gravitas. Lindsay Tanner's Priscilla is more free-spirited and curious, while Nathanael Harting's Judd is solid and oddly sympathetic as Curly's rival. Elizabeth Spano as the Ghost Girl makes just a few appearances on stage but proves memorable and effective.

South Dakota, just a shade over an hour long, is a concise and potent work. Thanks to the commitment and passion of its collaborators, this unyielding and often oblique parable about our Way of Life is rendered with clarity and vision. It's definitely an indie production that's worth your time.