by Coby Goss
August 12 – October 9, 1999
The Theatre Building
From the Chicago Sun-Times
August 17th, 1999
By Hedy Weiss
The Seanachaí Theatre Company burst onto the scene less than five years ago with Ann Noble Massey’s “And Neither Have I Wings to Fly…”–a lovely new play by a Chicago-based playwright. Now, after several strong productions of established works, most recently Brian Friel’s “Translations,” the ensemble has uncovered another exceptionally skilled playwright within its own ranks.
Coby Goss has been a first-rate actor in many of Seanachaí’s shows. But with the world premiere of his first major play, “Marked Tree”–now receiving a handsomely mounted production at the Theatre Building–he has emerged as a highly polished dramatist who bears serious watching.
Goss, a native of Little Rock, Ark., has turned to his home state and to a true event for the essentials of his story line. But he has infused the “facts” of a locally legendary murder-and-hanging case with what feels like firsthand knowledge of a place and its people. And he has transformed a collection of classic rural “types’ into multifaceted characters of genuine complexity–people whose thwarted dreams, sexual jealousies, deep loneliness and prickly humor combine to create an American gothic portrait of rural America.
Goss’ drama unfolds between 1912 and 1914. At its center is an essentially sweet but naive and frustrated 22-year-old, Arthur Tillman (played by Matt Gibson, an actor of great simplicity and guilelessness). Tillman has been scouted by a St. Louis baseball manager but feels a responsibility to stay on the family farm run by his ailing, cruelly authoritarian father, I.E. (John Dunleavy, wonderfully mean and ornery), and his loving mother, May (the always interesting Karen Tarjan).
Ironically, just as he is about to break free, Tillman is accused of murdering his pregnant, 17-year-old girlfriend, Amanda Sparks (Erin Philyaw, in a performance of many colors and moods as a young runaway with a promiscuous streak). He will become the last man in Arkansas to be hanged; the electric chair is on its way. Goss clearly has serious doubts about Tillman’s guilt, and suggests that any number of other characters, including itinerant workers, might have been responsible for the crime. But the play is not about legal matters; it’s about what happens when a small town defeats the hopes and desires of its population.
Among those leading trapped lives in this Arkansas town is Edna Hattabaugh (the stylish and seductive Catherine O’Connor), a prostitute who yearns to be black, and who takes Amanda under her wing; Earl Bolden (the precisely menacing Peter DeFaria), a laborer with a dark past and a streak of violence who has had an affair with Edna; Green Sparks (a nicely creepy Gary Houston), as Amanda’s alcoholic and abusive father; and Bobby Phelps (deftly portrayed by the playwright), a not-too-smart pal of Arthur’s. Even Will Sykes, the preacher (a biting, spirited performance by the excellent Michael Grant), delivers sermons full of suppressed rage.
Scott Cummins’ strong, sensitive, unsentimental direction is beautifully in sync with Goss’ writing, although a crucifixion pose near the play’s end seems a bit overdone. And Stephanie Nelson’s elemental, multi-angled set, combined with artful costumes (by Debbie Dunleavy), lighting (Charles W. Jolls) and sound (Matt Kozlowski) all support this very impressive debut.
From the Chicago Tribune
‘Marked Tree’ production: Fresh telling of old tale
By Richard Christiansen
“Marked Tree” is a first play by the young actor Coby Goss, yet in its production by the Seanachaí Theatre Company, it has a remarkable feeling of completeness and mature accomplishment. It sets out to tell that old, old story of doomed young lovers, and it does so with a well-crafted confidence.
The drama, which Goss has based on an actual case in his native Arkansas, concerns the awkward meeting, tender mating and disastrous parting of two youthful soulmates from a grim backwater town of 1912. It’s a time when neither parental nor biblical authority is supposed to be questioned. Both Amanda, an abused waif who has been taken in by a free-spirited, kind-hearted prostitute, and Arthur, the restless son of an enfeebled local farmer, are eager to break out from their smothering environment. Their lovemaking, tentative at first, blooms into a passionate affair; but, just as they are about to bust loose by catching a train out of town, the pregnant Amanda is murdered and her body is dumped into a well on the property of Arthur’s father.
If the melodrama is familiar, the story is fully realized in its treatment of individual characters and in its vivid local color. The tight, narrow world from which Arthur and Amanda hope to escape is expertly mapped out, and the townspeople who inhabit that world are drawn in detail, complete with langorous Arkansas drawl.
Working on designer Stephanie Nelson’s multi-leveled set, director Scott Cummins, aided by the lighting of Charles W. Jolls and the sound design of Matt Kozlowski, lays on plenty of evocative atmosphere. An opening tableau presents the assembled townsfolk in half-light, singing hymns at the foot of the high pulpit of the local preacher; macho fights between hot-blooded field hands are punctuated with the nagging barking of an off-stage dog; and, as Amanda’s end draws near, the sounds of a passing train rise to a climactic roar.
The sad-eyed Erin Philyaw as Amanda and the feisty Matt Gibson as Arthur are a nicely matched pair of lovers, and they are given commanding support by every actor in the cast. These include Michael Grant as the town’s Bible thumper, Catherine O’Connor as the zestful tart who takes Amanda under her wing, Gary Houston as Amanda’s slightly mad, sour-faced father, Karen Tarjan as Arthur’s loving mother, and John Dunleavy, in a very touching performance, as Arthur’s gruff, failing, drug-addicted father. Goss himself has a small role as a mean-spirited redneck who goads Arthur into anger.
Throughout the play’s two acts, one has the sense that the script has been carefully edited and polished by the author and that it has been given the loving attention of a full-out production. The tale is stale, but the play is not.
“Marked Tree” – a study in humanity, heartbreak
By Lawrence Bommer
This superb but sad story by a Chicago actor is brought to life by excellent performances Coby Goss, a young Chicago actor, has written a play so strong that it hardly matters that it’s also based on a real event: the last hanging in Arkansas. The mystery of the brutal 1914 murder of 19-year-old Amanda Stevens, a runaway whose body was found at the bottom of a well in Marked Tree, Arkansas, didn’t end with the execution of her 22-year-old lover Arthur Tillman (who may well have been innocent of the crime). Never sounding a wrong note, Goss – himself a native of Arkansas – deeply explores that mystery, helped by Scott Cummins’ superbly staged Seanachaí Theatre world premiere.
As Seanachaí proved with its 1995 “And Neither Have I Wings To Fly…” and its 1999 “Translations,” few Chicago theaters probe humanity and heartbreak better than this consummate company. The characters are as authentic as Stephanie Nelson’s set, a weathered farm and spooky woods beautifully illuminated by Charles W. Jolls’ lighting and conjured up by Matt Kozlowski’s you-are-there sounds. At the story’s big heart are the doomed lovers, Amanda and Arthur, who briefly become each other’s cure for the hard luck that life dealt them. Fleeing an abusive father and convinced that she’s “bad” and, even worse, ugly, Amanda is sheltered by Edna, a good-hearted lady of pleasure who herself wants to escape to join her sister in showbiz. Arthur, a virtual slave to his invalid father and the tyrant’s daily morphine injections, finds in Amanda a fellow dreamer – reason enough to hitch a train out of Marked Tree.
But a mean destiny stalks these young souls. Amanda finds herself threatened – by her violent father and by Earl Bolden, a predatory farmhand with a vicious past. Arthur clashes with his constantly castigating father, hapless mother and stupid friends. To underline the hopelessness of this world, a preacher regularly pronounces curses on anyone who would leave Marked Tree for godless Sodoms like Memphis and Chicago.
The murder, never shown, arrives late in the play, perhaps too much so for its optimal success. But we feel the wave of retribution that sends a drugged Arthur to his historical hanging. By then “Marked Tree” has sown doubt. We’re painfully unsure if justice was done by killing a young man who had every reason to want Amanda alive and well. Sadly, Goss doesn’t end the play with its next-to-last scene, an imaginary but enthralling last meeting of the lovers: He adds a wrap-up execution scene that, however beautifully acted, seems anticlimactic.
But what a rich world Goss evokes. Equal praise goes to the cast (which includes the author as a cantankerous yokel). They’re so right that surgery couldn’t separate them from their parts. Matt Gibson’s seemingly ordinary Arthur blossoms before us as he comes to cherish Erin Philyaw’s hopeful Amanda. Yet, for all the rapture that transforms them, their warm talk is just what it might have been in 1913. Surrounding these authentic lovers are country characters who, despite the Ozark accents, never succumb to caricature or condescension. Compassion fuels “Marked Tree”. Peter DeFaria’s loathsome Earl is still capable of a moment of love for the wife he left behind in Texas. Playing Amanda’s brutal father with convincing worthlessness, Gary Houston suggests the failure’s regret for his wife’s death. Michael Grant’s part-time minister is as full of humility as fire and brimstone. As kindly Edna, Catherine O’Connor reinvents the whore with the heart of gold – from the inside out.