There are few things in today's desensitized society that I think will shock audiences. But the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Second Samuel, by author Pamela Parker, manages to shock in its secret that's almost carried to the grave by Miss Gertrude, a deceased woman who is never seen on stage. That secret creates the play's tension, and ultimately leading to a lesson in tolerance that avoids being too preachy, and that applies to the acceptance of anyone's differences.
The story is set in 1949 in Second Samuel, Georgia, a small town where - and in a period when - tolerance is barely blossoming. We're introduced to this place by Andy Curtiss' B Flat, a young man with an unspecified mental handicap who is liberally referred to as "retarded" by some of the other characters. B Flat narrates the tale, assuming that duty while also occasionally participating with others in the story (a convention which took a bit of getting used to in the early portion of the play). B Flat is dismayed by Miss Gertrude's death and the town's reaction to her secret, which was discovered by Heather Nobiling's Omaha, the boisterous owner of the local hair salon, and Jason Dlouhy's nervous, eventually drunken June Cline, the owner of the funeral home.
Curtiss plays his part with an affable nature, slowness of speech, and unusual hand placements, such as holding them to his sides in a manner similar to that of some people afflicted with Asperger syndrome. His innocence is adorable, while B Flat's personality is endearing for his simple, accepting nature and, eventually, his defense of Miss Gertrude in a series of poignantly worded scoldings of his fellow Second Samuel citizens - rebukes which are reinforced, in a much calmer manner, by Greg Bouljon's level-headed town doctor Doc.
Some of the townsfolk are already unable to accept B Flat for his mental affliction, just as they're unable to accept Joseph Obleton's character U.S. for the color of his skin - especially since U.S. is trusted to handle money at local watering hole the Bait & Brew, run by Frisky (Dana Moss-Peterson). Miss Gertrude's secret, however, throws them all for a major loop, setting the residents in a tizzy over the appropriate thing to do with her corpse. Those most troubled by the dilemma are Michael King's Mr. Mozel, a gruff Bait & Brew regular who makes his judgmental displeasure clearly known, and Sara Laufer's Jimmy DeeAnne, a purse-lipped socialite-wannabe who makes her sense of superiority clear merely by the way she smooths out her skirt.
I was fascinated by Laufer's portrayal as she balances insincere politeness with her self-perceived high social status, and slams down the hair dryer over her head in a huff after verbally tussling with Susan Perrin-Sallak's Marcela. A fellow salon patron, Marcela enjoys making up stories to trick Jimmy DeeAnne into embarrassment, such as convincing her to change her funeral flower order from red roses (which Jimmy DeeAnne bragged about) to something else because Miss Gertrude hated roses, as they reminded her of her late husband's funeral.
Director (and, presumably, set designer) Patti Flaherty makes excellent use of space, packing five locations onto Playcrafters' thrust stage. On one side of the winding, wooden-plank pathway that runs down the middle of the set, there's the Bait & Brew with its slatted, wood-panel walls, bar, and tables; a grassy space; and a small hair salon, with the businesses furnished with the quality of furniture likely seen in towns of lesser means. On the other side is a front porch trimmed with latticework (but no rails), and a platform from which B Flat delivers his narration. Most of the action takes place with the menfolk in the bar, and the ladies gossiping while at the salon with Omaha and Donna N. Weeks' awkward, demure Ruby.
Flaherty treats the material with obvious respect, as do King and Laufer by avoiding being purely evil caricatures, which softens the slight preachiness of the material. There's also a slow, gentle, Southern-ly pacing to Flaherty's staging. I sense that Flaherty believes there's an important lesson to be shared here, but instead of driving it home, she'd respectfully prefer to allow the moral admonition to unfold naturally through the dialogue, perhaps so it's more readily accepted by the audience.
Playcrafters' production of Second Samuel didn't grab me at first, given the back-and-forth nature of B Flat's narration. However, by the time Miss Gertrude's secret was revealed, I was hooked by Parker's storytelling style, and curious about the way in which these characters would deal with their new knowledge. By the end of the play, I was not disappointed in the lesson taught, nor in the way Flaherty and her cast attempted to teach it.
Second Samuel runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline) through July 20, and more information and tickets, call (309)762-0330 or visit Playcrafters.com.