Walter Vs. The Water Authority
nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
August 5, 2009
"You do what those boys tell you, and you'll be just fine," advises Walter Murch to his son, in one of the pivotal, focusing moments of Benjamin T Scott's surprisingly gentle Walter Vs. The Water Authority. It is then that you reconsider all that you have seen before. You see, I realized at this very moment that Walter is one of those small town Americans who trust the system to take care of things. But, this decade has been a hard one and the system he once trusted doesn't seem to be doing him (and, by extension, us) any favors. There's the war, and then there's the economy, and the loss of jobs, and the loss of dignity because of that; so when the Water Authority comes knocking at his door, to "hook up" a new government-planned water system that will replace the water from his well, he takes a stand. Why should they take away something that God gives freely and then charge him for it? So he sets out to protect his possibly contaminated water well with a shotgun, awaiting the arrival of the Government's Water Authority.
It's a big setup. And while I expected brutal and comical—I mean, just look at the title—Scott went the other way and chose subtle. But what do I know? And how dare I expect anything? It is Scott's job to surprise his audience, and he does, at times quite beautifully. This is not a play about a war with a government agency; this is a meditation on the disillusionment a man feels when the things he holds most dear are slowly taken away.
I won't reveal much more, because it would mean giving away the plot of the play, and that should be the audience's to discover. I do believe, however, that Scott is still just discovering what this play will potentially be. Some information is repeated once too many times, some scenes are underwritten, while a few, like the middle-of-the-night scene between Walter and the local sheriff, Ray, are just right. The writing can be equal parts marvelous and clunky, but Scott does have a way of capturing the voices of people who live in small towns (in this case, I'm guessing somewhere north of Carbondale, PA) and who work for a living, whose hands get dirty, and who hope their children have far better lives than they achieved.
Still, in a play about loss, you have to learn as much about the thing that is lost as you do about the person that loses it, and at 70 minutes, Scott has not given himself a chance to let us discover what is lost. We are supposed to feel it, because Walter does and because his wife does and because the playwright tells us to. But we don't, because we barely get to know it; had we gotten a little more, we may have taken the journey along with Walter instead of seeing him take it. I certainly hope Scott continues to explore the potential of this play.
Director Paula D'Alessandris has a lovely, light, steady hand. She has no need for flashy directorial choices; she understands that a play about simple people requires simplicity. She also has a fine sense for silences. Most directors are afraid of silence, but she lets the characters settle into lives where the most important things are often left unsaid.
The performances are fine, simple, and for the most part grounded. You won't find much scenery chewing here. D'Alessandris has coaxed carefully modulated performances. I like Walter as played by Ron McClary, mostly because I know him, I know this guy, and I like this guy, I wouldn't mind having a beer with him (when he's not pointing a rifle at people). You rarely see the decent, hard-working father on stage any more, but this is one of them, and McClary really charms in the role. His best work comes with Greg Skura, who plays Ray, a high school friend and now the town sheriff who comes to enforce the government's mandate, and that's because Skura gives Ray, ease, confidence, and wisdom all in one scene. Both Jenny Burleson as Laura and Cody Neeb as Joey have lovely moments particularly towards the end of the play, but I felt their parts, which are pivotal, were slightly underwritten and so I was frustrated by what could have been and what I could have learned about them both.
Still, Scott, D'Alessandris, and the cast paint a picture of disillusionment that feels real and immediate—both specifically to Walter's plight and to our everyday attempt to keep up with a world that is changing too quickly, where our safety is often in question, and where we're never sure if we should resign ourselves to losing the things we love or fight for them even though we are painfully aware that will lose them in the end.