A slog through a Southern Gothic swamp of guilt and racial issues, Terminus is brightened by the artistry of Deirdre O’Connell, whose presence glows amid the murk of Gabriel Jason Dean’s new drama. The Obie Award–winning actor portrays Eller, an elderly spitfire succumbing to the ghosts of dementia. Her visions lurk around her shotgun shack down by the railroad tracks in rural Georgia.
The contemporary story that Dean attempts to render is a shadowy mess of living and spectral individuals. Eller, who is white, is plagued by apparitions from her long-ago yesterdays. Sporadically emerging from the fridge and other nooks in the house are Eller’s daddy (Luke Leonard), mama (Jessie Dean), and little sister (Clementine Belber). Materializing also is a black neighbor (Shaun Patrick Tubbs) whose affair with Eller’s mama generates a Big Awful Secret that gnaws away at Eller no end — and which is not revealed until late in the 100-minute play. Passed souls from Eller’s past often mentioned but never appearing include her husband, who was black and lived apart from Eller due to Jim Crow miscegenation laws, and their daughter, who died under mysterious circumstances.
Oblivious to her impoverished present, the delusional Eller receives support from Jaybo (Reynaldo Piniella), her devoted seventeen-year-old grandson of mixed-race heritage. Jaybo’s estranged father (Mat Hostetler), a white dealer in crystal meth, also pops up. And an unlikely stranger to all of this Southern discomfort arrives in the form of a black vagabond gamine (Vanessa Butler) who initiates Jaybo into sex on the kitchen table.
Got that straight? This who’s-who is not easy to grasp: Eller’s then and now intermingle in a dramaturgical haze as the old lady confusedly faces her transgressions. Even as the playwright fails to make a convincing case for the protagonist’s racist anxieties, he further clutters matters with sidelines such as the saga of Eller’s marriage, Jaybo’s sexual awakening, and a last-minute deal to sell off the shack. Lollygagging dialogue scarcely clears up gaps in the narrative.
Terminus is the second play in “The Attapulgus Elegies,” Dean’s projected collection of seven works regarding a decaying mill town. Perhaps some of the loose ends that dangle amid this text are to be tied up in other portions of the cycle. Produced here by the Monk Parrots ensemble in the intimate Next Door at NYTW space, the ambiguous regional drama is not illuminated by director Lucie Tiberghien’s staging. A longitudinal setting of windows, doors, kitchen appliances, and faded walls (designed by D’Vaughn Agu) provides a suitably decayed atmosphere but can become a pain in the neck as viewers swivel their heads to observe the actors performing along its extreme peripheries. For the most part, the acting unfortunately ranges from indifferent to lousy.
The shining exception is O’Connell, whose plaintive charms and remarkable gift for suggesting depths of character lend the troubled Eller both a warm, wistful appeal and a spiny backbone that bristles whenever she is challenged. Shuffling around in a bedraggled nightie, her head crowned by a bird’s nest of tangled red hair, O’Connell and her earthy performance anchor with a semblance of reality this awfully foggy tale of a haunted household.