Sarah Ruhl, writer of the Eldred Theater’s past renditions of “Dead Man’s Cellphone” and “The Vibrator Play,” contemplates the boundaries of gender and the outer limits of love in “Late: A Cowboy Song.” With childish charm and a roller-coaster romance, Ruhl transports audience members to a secluded home in the Pittsburgh area. The show centers on the lives of Mary and Crick, played by fourth-year students Evan Adeen and Matt Thompson.
The opening scene features Crick’s frustration at Mary’s late return to their unassuming home. As the title suggests, being “late” is a recurring theme. A quick transition into the next segment depicts Mary’s anxiety about being late in a different way. Although she is unsure of her feelings toward pregnancy, Crick quickly warms her up to the idea of marrying him, reminding her that the couple has been naively love-stricken since the second grade. Thompson’s depiction of Crick’s boyish facial expressions and enthusiasm added to the innocence of the scene.
Their simple relationship is rapidly complicated by Mary’s cowboy friend, Red, played by fourth-year theatre and English major Nailah Matthews. Matthews takes the character in an intriguing direction—a mysterious, androgynous cowboy who clearly cares for Mary. Red endeavors to help Mary experience life beyond the city limits, with horses, sunsets and cool nights, while Crick adamantly opposes these efforts.
Despite Crick’s outward resistance, Red and Mary’s friendship slowly picks up speed. There is an ever-growing contrast between Crick and Mary’s childlike interactions and Red and Mary’s more mature, introspective encounters. The audience watches as the chasm between Red and Mary’s world closes, while the rift between Mary and Crick broadens. Matthews did an excellent job of subtly, yet gradually, displaying emotion toward Adeen, which made Red’s ultimate affection toward Mary strikingly impactful in the end.
Several scenes throughout the show depict Red singing lullabies to Mary and her newborn baby. The repeated lyric “who will cradle the sky to sleep / the cowboys will” stood out. The costume choices for Mary featured a pale blue dress which seemed to represent the sky, referenced in this song. Later, she wore a bright yellow one, reminiscent of sunshine and of the sunset she watches with Red.
Along the same lines, the lighting cues also used color as a symbolic tool. After an intense altercation with Mary, the end of the show features Crick sitting alone under a wash of red light. Crick’s anger toward Mary, and toward himself, is evident. The light signals this, along with the unwelcome and unmistakable manifestation of Red in his life.
The transitions between scenes were often awkwardly long, and sometimes executed in total silence, which tended to disrupt the flow from one scene the next. One part of the play features a run-through of several holidays in rapid succession. The hasty effect could have been better achieved if lighting cues occurred more quickly and without pauses.
The performance was well-executed in many ways, but left me longing for faster transitions both logistically and rhetorically. I left the show questioning the big-picture idea, which led me to believe that the production lacked cohesion and a clear vision for each scene and storyline. With profoundly talented actors and thoughtful lighting and costume choices, I hope that future shows will accomplish this feat.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5