Last Man Club begins with the image of a glowing lantern, which casts an almost spooky glow upon the stage, perched atop a cluttered table. This arresting image is indicative of the incredibly strong visual images that characterize the design elements of this production. Unfortunately, though the show is aesthetically pleasing in terms of lighting, set, and sound design, the script and the acting are simply not up to par. The show's best moments occur when actors are silent, as the design is able to express itself without the burden of slow-moving dialogue.
Axis Theatre Company's newest piece takes place during that time in history known as the "Dust Bowl," which was an extreme drought that took place between 1930 and 1939 in the central plain states. This ruined crops and financially decimated families, many of whom had been lured there by the prospect of agricultural success. During this time, people who could fled to other areas, but those who stayed behind created organizations called "Last Man Clubs" that provided what they could to the remaining families. Major (David Crabb) is a member of one such club, and he lives with his brother and two sisters. One day two strangers come to his house, one of them bearing a design for a machine that could create rain.
The imagery and plot of the play bring to mind playwrights like Eugene O'Neill and J. M. Synge, who both knew how to create tragic stories with characters who evoked your pity. Writer/director Randy Sharp has an interesting plot, but manages to drag it out without actually introducing us to the characters with whom we are supposed to identify. The 85 minutes somehow seems like much longer, as the highly affected characters spend their time on stage practically action-less.
This is not to say that there aren't some actors trying their hardest to break out of their unfortunate parts. Brian Barnhart's scientist Henry Taper and Lynn Mancinelli's sister Wishful Hi, who is problematically referred to by several colorful euphemisms that allude to her lower brain function, manage to create subtleties in characters who don't necessarily call for that. The other individuals on stage are simply too affective to fit in the ostensibly naturalistic world of the play.
I honestly don't believe this to be the fault of the actors, for surely they would have been more believable had they been given something to do. As it stands, this could be a three-person play, and therefore the other three characters seem to be expendable. I want to know more about who these people are; I want to see their strengths and not just their weaknesses. And I believe that it would be possible to do this without changing the plot entirely. This would create an arc, which Last Man Club simply doesn't have.
But what it does have is some of the most stunning design I have seen in a smaller theater in quite a while. Set designer Chad Yarborough's beautifully somber and emotionally evocative stage works together with David Zeffren's lighting design to set the mood at a very specific point between fear and desperation. Costume designer Karl Ruckdeschel adds to this mix with some terrifying but functional protective layers against the dust. These characters enter the space looking like they have come from a horror movie, but then strip away the layers to reveal more traditional looking prairie clothing. The final cherry on top of this design sundae is Steve Fontaine's sound design, which managed to provide me with my favorite moment in the entire play, which was a sound cue that took place in total darkness. It gave me chills, and the sound landscape of this production was what had the most emotional impact for me.
If you are a student of theatrical design, a Dust Bowl history buff, or very drawn to the tragic, then this play is for you. I hope that Last Man Club gets the chance to grow and change a bit more, because I believe it could be transformed from the theatrical version of the most exclusive places in town.