The poster for Hired Gun pulls a line from Mark Scharf’s deliberately melodramatic meditation on aging, Fender Guitars, delusions, the music business and marriage. “Rock and Roll has never been kind to its old men” declares former rockabilly star Dewitt (Rodney Bonds) near the end of the play. In his case, that is absolutely true. To this I can only add a famous rock lyric that sums up what has become of Dewitt’s life, “…there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”
Each and every one of us wants something back. Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s someone we loved, maybe’s its youth, maybe it’s a cat that ran away. For ninety-nine percent of us what we have lost is a shared experience. We can relate to each other’s loss.
To have lost the fame and adoration that Dewitt once knew is unusual. It is not a something that we can easily relate to for as much as we may have dreamed of that fame, it is still out of our reach. Not many of us have stood on stage as thousands screamed our name, reached out to touch us for salvation or stopped us in the grocery store while we were feeling a melon for freshness to ask for our autograph or a picture.
Boy oh boy, does Dewitt want his fame back. To help him get it he hires the best guitarist he has ever heard, a studio cat who is getting ready to release his own album and tour with his own band for the first time. This is young Jesse (Tucker Foltz). Dewitt’s idea is that, with Jesse’s stunning guitar skills, he will be able to find a record company for his next album by bringing in this hotshot to grace his new songs. Once that happens, Dewitt’s fame is sure to return.
Thin, perfectly dressed, charming and supremely confident, Jesse is everything that Dewitt ever used to be. Even Dewitt’s wife Sherri (Sarah Eberhardt), the sultry, Cheshire-smiling embodiment of the wife who is smarter than all the men around her, is taken by the young man. Unfortunately, this poor woman is surrounded by her obsessed husband, a man who has installed cameras throughout his own house, as well as his cracker-brain thug of a lifetime friend, Red (Mike Ware).
The play opens with a quick spotlight shot of Dewitt in his glory, leather jacket, half-gloves and too-tight rock pants, his arms outstretched in victory. Almost forty years later he is now deeply ensconced in his house and studio deep in the swampland of Louisiana. A portrait of his once young and glorious self sits over his fireplace.
While he has almost everything a man could want, including enough money to drink every day, a wife who tolerates him and a friend to tell him he is right no matter how stupid his ideas are, he wants his youth back. He is bleeding for the fame he once knew. He is starving for the adoration of the crowds, for the vindication of his life that all his success doesn’t seem to give him.
In lesser hands the characters that Scharf has created for Hired Gun could easily become exaggerations of familiar clichés. Even dressed up in guitars and rock and roll, we have seen this before: overwrought, out of control, scene-chewing backwoods folks being visited by a know-it-all Yankee who eventually teach the know-it-all something he didn’t know. In Scharf’s hands the lesson learned is not what we expect. In fact it is very painful, emotionally, mentally and physically.
The playwright gives each of the four roles (and the audience) something much deeper to consider, something bigger than the life they appear to be living. There are spaces he gives the actors that a lesser writer would have filled with needless chatter. Each of the four actors takes full advantage of the leeway he has given them in his tight and very well-constructed script and, with the help of Stacy Bond’s near perfect direction, not once do they ever slip into cliché.
When Dewitt’s wife Sherri meets Jesse for the first time. she asks him if he wants a drink. “You look like vodka to me, colorless.” It would be easy to soak in the laughter that follows such a line, but Eberhardt beautifully glides over to the bar as if the line was part of her everyday life. She smiles at her ability to confuse the young man, but she also knows that she is playing a game and there is no need to revel in each score. There will be plenty down the line.
This is a marvelously mature and very sensual performance as she keeps Jesse at arm’s length while eventually finding something new about herself. Eberhardt’s growth inside the character is real and as she grows we silently hope she will make the right decisions. This is beautiful work from a skilled actor.
Her contempt for Dewitt’s hillbilly friend, Red is palpable and very real. And believe me, we share that contempt as we watch the two muscle each other for Dewitt’s attention. Ware could have played this character near wild, a man filled with hoops and hollers, but instead his menace is real. It is colliding inside him, and he is going to love it when he gets to release it. He moves slowly across the stage with the smug confidence of a man who is too stupid to know he is stupid. In short, he is a bully and could care less about anyone but himself and Dewitt. Ware is note- perfect in the part.
The Hired Gun in the title is Jesse. Dewitt needs his guitar sound, he craves the success that Jesse has achieved. He wants to give Jesse some of his star power, a power near gone, while at the same time pulling the inexhaustible energy of Jesse’s youth into his own life. Foltz can be a bit anxious inside the role and while, on occasion, you can see him thinking, the minute he becomes comfortable, the scenes flow.
When Sherri flirts with him, his nervousness at the approach of his new boss’s wife is youth incarnate as he fails to see she is simply flirting. His exchanges with Dewitt are sharp and punctuated by the very real impatience of youth. When Dewitt becomes near-patronizing, Foltz recoils appropriately disgusted with the old man’s insinuations. In the end it is his hero worship for Dewitt as well as the legend of Dewitt’s long dead guitar player that keeps inside the compound and Foltz makes us believe that.
None of this works without a strong Dewitt at the center. As Dewitt, Rodney Bonds never flinches once. He delivers on every level. When he smiles in the early hours of the play, you know he is caging the life force from a naïve kid. In his smile we can easily read his intentions without a word passing his lips. Without moving a muscle, Bonds makes us believe that people once screamed for Dewitt the way they screamed for Elvis or Roy Orbison.
When shown in concert, Bonds fervently believes the spirituality of the occasion, he is feeding off the crowd and firmly believes that he is feeding them in return. As he works the crowd Bonds is so deeply lost inside that faith, the idea of redemption, the promise of rock and roll, that we willingly follow Dewitt right into the delusions he is eating for every meal.
When Jesse says he wants to “test the waters” with Dewitt’s musical ideas, Dewitt tells him that “Hell, boy, I can part the waters.” And as convincing as Bonds makes the declaration, we firmly believe he can. Bonds makes us believe Dewitt’s faded stardom, he was a star. We know it and thanks to Bonds’ skill, we respect it.
First-time director Stacy Bonds (Rodney’s daughter-in-law) has given the cast plenty of room to move, but firmly holds them in from going too far overboard. It is a deft balancing act that deserves attention. When the aforementioned concert scene takes place she keeps it is partial profile, which allows us to never leave the reality of the play. It is an interesting choice in dynamics and a very smart one.
Her decisions in the area of tech work along the same lines, she keeps everything moving in service of the script. Lighting Designer Charlie Danforth delivers as never once are you aware that something has shifted on stage; you glide along with the playwright’s words. Following the example of his director, he stays with the story. and the actors hit every rise and fall and fade.
In the hands of someone less restrained, less skilled than Director Stacy Bonds, Hired Gun might have gone that way. And there are moments where Scharf’s script may have called for bigger reactions form the cast. Choosing to anchor the play in the cold, hard realities of human behavior found inside Scharf’s work, Director Bonds and Scharf never once let Hired Gun leave reality.
In the end of it all, it is Scharf who really delivers. He veers close to cliché, but his years of experience and his innate skill keep him from driving the car off the cliff (even though a few pebbles may fall into the canyon!). In his own Playwright notes he recognizes the melodramatic writing inside the script.
Scharf asks us to look at our own hypocrisy, our natural ability to make excuses for our failures while at the same time not once asking us to pass judgment on Dewitt. He leaves the final thought in our minds, ultimately asking us to look at the excuses we make for our own behavior and how that behavior, good or bad, can affect others. Which is why Hired Gun works so well; Scharf tells a story, then allows us to decide what is really right or wrong.
Hired Gun is a great example of the best that the Baltimore Playwrights Festival can deliver. It is the perfect embodiment of what the organization reaches for with every show, a unified effort working together towards bringing a playwright’s lines to life. There is a mixture of the experienced, the not-so experienced and one or two first-timers creating something exciting and new for a Baltimore audience. It is also a highlight in the career of Theatrical Mining Company who, since 2006, have been concentrating on presenting Baltimore Playwrights in the best light possible.
Hired Gun continues its run at the Loads of Fun Theatre, presented by the Theatrical Mining Company, 120 W. North Avenue, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 8 p.m. through July 28th with 2 p.m. shows July 22nd and 29th.
ABOUT MARK SQUIREK: A graduate of UMBC as well as The Players Workshop of Second City, Squirek has acted in, directed or written numerous plays over the last 25 years. In 2006 Broadway World named him Playwright of the Year for his one act SOD. He has worked at theaters in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C. For two years (2007-2009) he was on the Board at Mobtown. His first novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Society of the Diamond Tattoo, is scheduled to be published by Pro-Se Press in July.