PROVO — I really wanted to like this show. I really did. I know that when reviewers go see a show, we should be open-minded and unbiased, but I wanted this show to do great things. You see, Accident, West Virginia is playing at the Echo Theatre, which is a relatively new establishment in central Provo. With the recent sale of the Provo Theater and the closing of the Center Street Theater, the theater scene was starting to dwindle, with the Covey Center being the last available space for plays to be staged. So when the Echo Theatre opened its doors to various groups, with plans to do shows of their own, it was an exciting venture that brought up the lingering question: “Can a theater survive in downtown Provo?” I really wanted this show to succeed.
The show itself is based off an original script by Jeffery Blake, one of the cast members of Accident. The plot is based on a classic farce structure with a lot of zany characters all interacting with each, mistaking identities, hiding objects from each other, slamming doors, running around, and, of course, cross-dressing. It follows the happenings of the “Happy Accident,” a small cabin resort run by the life-hardened Mama Turner (Melissa Burke Delange) and her developmentally slow, rodent-loving son, Boy (Patrick Brannelly). The action takes place over one weekend in which we meet a host of unique people, including: a student-film prodigy and his crew, two police officers undercover as newlyweds, a hippie activist and her overly-supportive husband, a phobic psychologist and his patient with ever-changing personalities, and the local sheriff and his deputy. Each of these groups brings a small subplot to the story, but the overarching story revolves around the two officers following up on a tip that a couple of counterfeiters would be at the cabin during the weekend, and the officers must figure out who the criminals are.
Staging an original script is always a brave endeavor and one that should be respected. That being said, this play was still rough around the edges. One of the biggest issues was a lack of trust in the actors and the audience. The play was extremely explicit in its exposition with characters explaining some of the secrets from the onset of the show. For example, the audience knew instantly that the “newlyweds” were really undercover cops looking for counterfeiters who would be at the cabin that weekend because the characters said all of this in their opening dialogue. There were also times when the characters, though alone onstage, would explain what they were thinking or doing. It’s just a little unnatural for me to hear a character say to themselves “I guess that I’ll just lay down on this couch and take a little nap.” Those are places that the actors and director can just show us what’s happening.
Another major issue that I had with the script was that even though it was a farce, there was still an element of “whodunit,” but that fell flat as well. Any revelation that was made by a character and any plot twist that happened was so heavily foreshadowed that there weren’t really any surprises at all. Finally, and maybe of most concern, many of the jokes felt forced. It felt like Blake’s script was trying really hard to be funny, but this led to many of the jokes having way too much build up for very little payoff. I felt that the characters were almost expecting there to be a rimshot after things they said.
However, the staleness of the jokes can’t be attributed entirely to the script. The comedic timing of the entire night seemed off and the actors, for the most part, didn’t really seem to be grounded in their characters. The show was directed by Cherie Julander and assistant directed by Erika Ericksen. The show had the basics of good directing down. There were good stage pictures that made for good sightlines for the majority of the audience, and the set was used fairly well. Yet at the same time, the show really seemed to drag, clocking in at just over two and a half hours. There were also minor inconsistencies, like whether the audience could be referenced or not and pantomiming on the fourth wall. But the major directorial issue came down to finding the humor. There were a number of punch-lines that were thrown away because movement onstage distracted me from what was being said.
The acting was more varied in its quality, some performances were bland while others stole the show. The ones that didn’t impress usually suffered from an overall lack of investment in the character. It didn’t seem like some of the actors were really becoming the character, merely rehearsing the lines that had been given to them. This led to a lot of flat deliveries and low energy moments. This was particularly noticeable because the script was trying to push the characters to be farcical and without the actors’ commitment, the humor floundered. It was a farce script with non-farce acting. There was also very little reacting happening on stage. It just didn’t feel like the actors were really listening to each other, just for the next cue line.
Though there were some disappointments in the acting, there were also some highlights. My favorite performance by far was that of Travis Reynolds who played Bert, the husband of the recovering hippie (Hailey Nebeker). Reynolds had impeccable timing and was entirely believable in his portrayal of the husband who just wanted to make everything right while not offending anyone. I loved the depth that was added to the character by subtly showing the audience that there was an internal conflict but not fully revelaing what it was until near the very end, at which point it made sense that he let loose just a little. Nebeker’s portrayal of Chloe took a while to grow on me, but eventually did by the second act. Nebeker found fun ways to react to her surroundings, especially with Reynolds. I think that one of my favorite scenes of the whole play was when Bert and Chloe explained her hippie revolutionary backstory. It was the perfect mix of zaniness from the script combined with the brilliant delivery by both actors who explained the events with the “how we met” tone. I loved it.
Clive (Patrick Newman) was another highlight of the show. Though I didn’t always feel that his character was written very well, Newman was wholly committed to his character. I never felt that I was seeing an actor portraying a character, only a character experiencing things for the first time. And finally, I really did enjoy the performance Patrick Brannelly who played Mama’s son, Boy. This character was rather simple (literally), but Brannelly played it with conviction and seemed to be having fun doing so. I think one of the best things about Brannelly’s performance was that he never seemed rushed in his action. This is probably due to the nature of the character, being a mentally slow hick. But it was a nice breath of fresh air. He took only the time he needed, so as not to drag, but also made sure that he was working with the energy of the audience.
One last performance that should be mentioned is that of Christopher Sherwood Davis, who played Cedric. I personally did not like the character of Cedric, but I feel that Davis did the best that he could with what he was given. Cedric is the patient of the psychologist Merryweather (Jeff Blake) and has multiple personalities. This meant that Davis’s challenge was to create around 10-12 distinct characters that he would switch between. Sadly, the some of the personalities emerged only once and none of them really got a chance to be fully developed, which was probably the intention. But I would have rather had more time with individual characters.
Accident, West Virginia was difficult to watch. I did laugh a few times here and there, but not all that often. For a two and a half hour long farce, a smattering of laughter just doesn’t cut it. There were some commendable performances and it is great that Utah County has a new venue producing theater. But I feel like there’s still a lot more that can be done with this production company. But I think the Echo Theatre has the potential to live up to my hopes and expectations. In time and with a lot of hard work, they will do some great work, but it still has room to grow. I’m excited to see shows here in the future.