SALT LAKE CITY — As the streetlight glows above the fence, a chorus of crickets announces the coming of each night on Sam’s driveway. Adding to their rhythmic strains is a nearby woodpecker, senselessly banging his head against the metal streetlights of Philadelphia to send out his dominant call. Benji, an injured war veteran with a purple heart and bronze star, has recently moved in with Sam, his previous living arrangements terminated by his father’s recent suicide. Sam’s driveway becomes audience to arguing, to memories, to frustration, to pain, to laughter, to sometimes giving up and then the inevitable trying again. The paths of Benji’s sister (named Elizabeth) and Sam’s potential boyfriend, Matt, weave in an out of the frame, adding color and clarity to the outline of Benji’s story. The woodpecker becomes a powerful metaphor of Benji’s life. And no matter how hard Sam may push against it, he remains steadfastly there to put back together whichever of Benji’s pieces have been knocked awry.
From the moment I entered the space, I was taken back by the elaborate realism of Dennis Hassan‘s set design. A fence corner extended on one side to meet an open garage, stuffed full of storage including an old couch, a box labeled “Benji’s Stuff,” and a refrigerator full of beer. On the other side, the fence abutted the back wall of Sam’s house, depicted as a beautiful red brick with three concrete stairs leading to a weathered patio door. My eye jumped from detail to detail, appreciating the electric meter, the wisps of stray grass in the concrete cracks, the weathered details of the blinds and window grates, and the natural debris in the corners where concrete met brick or wood. Every aspect of the set felt authentic, making the rows of audience seating appear starkly out of place in this outdoor setting.
The light design by Jesse Portillo skillfully added another layer of realism with transitions from day to night and scenes during every conceivable time period appearing naturally lit. One poignant moment occurred when Benji (played by Stefan Espinosa) appeared behind the fence, stepping into the pool of light created by the streetlight. The streetlight itself was lit, but the shadowed beam on Benji’s face gave the illusion of the abundant shadows in the night. In addition, Jennifer Jackson‘s sound design, which included natural sounds such as the woodpecker and the crickets created a textured silence on which the actors could layer their dialogue. The costuming, while simple, gave subtle clues to each character, alluding to personality without screaming it at the audience. Whether it was a sturdy pair of workboots on Matt (played by Matthew Sincell) or well-tailored slacks on Sam (played by Carleton Bluford), the purposeful choices made by costume designer Nancy Hills added important detail to the story.
This Salt Lake Acting Company production is the world premiere for local playwright Shawn Fisher‘s Streetlight Woodpecker, a masterful string of conversations so natural I frequently felt as though I was eavesdropping on a neighbor’s personal interactions. Under the direction of Richie Call, the four actors skillfully presented a wide variety of conversational styles from arguments to small talk to impassioned silence. While each was impressive in its own right, my favorites included a few drawn out diatribes about inconsequential minutia, which I related to as a style frequently found in my own life. Early in the second act, Liz (played by Olivia Custodio) and Sam argued at length whether Liz should have identified her aunt as “the one with the stoma” instead of “the large one” or “the one with brown hair.” Because this conversation seemed so commonplace, it both highlighted and gave validity to other conversations which addressed the deeper themes of homosexuality, suicide, disappointment, or war.
Additionally, I enjoyed the actors’ ability to change quickly from emotion to emotion, with one perceived word or tone changing the course of an entire conversation. This skill was required most frequently of Espinosa as Benji, whose insecurities as an injured veteran would frequently cause him to take offense at any perceived slight. Espinosa changed not only tone and inflection but mannerisms as well as his personality seemed to change on a dime. This ability was one of many Espinosa lent to the role of Benji. As with the impervious detail in the set design, the specificity with with Espinosa created Benji was remarkable. Walking with a cane much of the time due to an injured leg, Benji always popped open his beer cans (of which there were many) using just the thumb of his left hand. The only detail I found lacking in this production was attention to the scar on Benji’s leg. Compared to the complete authenticity of each other significant detail, I found the makeup artistry to be lacking, its cartoonish details to be a distraction from an otherwise riveting performance.
As a supporting character in this tale, only a few details were offered about Matt, the softball-playing firefighter with a romantic interest in Sam and exceptional patience with Benji. When Sam throws up his hands and goes inside the house after a potential date night spent searching for Benji, it was Matt who spent the next moments alternating between listening, reprimanding, understanding and offering Benji tough love. In those moments I wanted to know more about Matt: where he had come from and what life experiences had prepared him to have the enormous capacity for empathy his character expressed. For me, much of what I was supposed to learn from this production came from Sincell’s performance of Matt.
Perhaps the best review I can give to this production is to state that I took very few notes, being held consistently captive by the metaphor unfolding on the stage and to add that my family’s inquiry about the show was met with a twenty-minute rave of its intensity and authenticity. My appreciation of the production’s artistic merits do little to disclose how deeply Fisher’s script affected me or to begin to explain the human connection I felt at the hands of the four actors. This production is both thematically and linguistically intended for mature audiences, full of important moments that beg to be discussed. Clear your schedules to make it to this production of Streetlight Woodpecker.