We’ve seen the anti-drug cautionary tale many times before, in prestige dramas and cheeseball PSAs and all points in between. Whether it can be done without simplification and sermonizing in the post-“Just Say No” era is a question left unanswered by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s new production, Dael Orlandersmith’s Horsedreams. It’s an earnest work—painfully, almost embarrassingly so. And it’s mostly free of nuance or complexity; the whole thing is about as subtle as a hammer to the head.
Orlandersmith’s script opens with Desiree (Roxanna Hope) and Loman (Michael Laurence) recalling how they met, married, and started a family. Desiree dies from a bad speedball when son Luka (Matthew Schecter) is three, so widower Loman takes on a part-time nanny, Mira (Orlandersmith). As the boy gets older, the pressures of single fatherhood push Loman to drugs; Mira recognizes the patterns from her own family history with “dope,” and the cycle of addiction continues.
Child actor Schecter is a real find, and Hope manages to push through the artifice of her scenes and dig out real emotion. Though some of his line readings are stiff, Laurence has his moments (the physicality of his descent into addiction feels authentic, and he shares a couple of heartbreaking scenes with Schecter). Orlandersmith is naturalistic and believable—she projects a comfort with her script not always shared by her castmates.
Most of the four characters’ dialogue is delivered to the audience as continuous, parallel monologues, a device that can play in small doses (as in Neil LaBute’s Bash), but grows wearying in a full-length work. Gordon Edelstein’s staging creates the unavoidable effect of feeling that we’re being talked at, rather than watching a story unfold. Orlandersmith has garnered considerable acclaim for her monologue shows, but Horsedreams feels like something in between—straddling the line between storytelling and narrative, and not really working as either.