Little Eyes brings fear and loathing to the stage

Making the most of difficult characters: (from left) Braxton Baker, Sarah Agnew, Luverne Seifert

Making the most of difficult characters: (from left) Braxton Baker, Sarah Agnew, Luverne Seifert

In the program for Little Eyes, playwright Cory Hinkle mentions that one of the inspirations for his latest play was Gregory Crewdson's surrealist portrait of modern American life, Twilight. Perusing the photographs in that collection does show a kindred spirit. In image after image, we find everyday scenes twisted and merged, to the point where yard work is done in the living room or a flooded bottom floor is as much a swimming pool as a reason to call the plumber.

Two images particularly struck me. In one, a mother and her son sit at the kitchen table, as stiff and lifeless as many of the subjects, as if they are onstage about to begin their performance. In another, a solitary man looks in on a sleeping woman and child through a window, and it is unclear whether a father is checking in on his family or a lurker is looking for an opportunity.

These images encapsulate the freestanding anxiety and fear that live in the heart of Hinkle's new play, the latest piece produced by the Workhaus Collective, showing at the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater. Though Hinkle's work doesn't entirely hold together, there are terrific moments sprinkled throughout, like the tableaus Crewdson creates. He's aided by a terrific cast that works wonders with a string of difficult characters and an overall vision that pushes everyday absurdity and fears to the limit.

In a nameless suburb months after the 9/11 attacks, two neighboring families are in crisis. In one home, Judy lives in denial, claiming that her husband is working all the time at his "office," even though he seems to have abandoned the family. Son Martin is, not surprisingly, upset by this prospect and wants the truth (and perhaps for his mother to get off the couch and turn off the endless religious programs she has been watching). Across the street, Steph and Mark exist in a world loaded with tension. She wants a child, but seems unsure and retreats into a fantasy in which neither of them is able. Born-again Mark carries some heavy guilt on his shoulders, as he and Judy hooked up at a recent block party.

Entering the already destabilized situation is Gary, a man with a camera who claims to be from the mayor's office and is here to document the everyday people and sights of the neighborhood. He also worms his way into Judy's life, eventually joining the family as an uneasy surrogate dad.

In the end, all the events don't hang together particularly well. Hinkle begins to explore plenty of meaty topics, such as the fears of the post-9/11 months, when every day seemed to bring a new threat down on our heads, while the Homeland Security codes let us know if it was a yellow, orange, or (gasp) red day. What's missing is a sense of depth. By nature the characters are ciphers, but even their madness doesn't get enough room to breathe. It's as if Hinkle was willing to go to the edge of the cliff but not willing to look down into the abyss, for fear of falling off. I had a similar problem with his last Workhaus show, SADGRRL13, which was long on anxiety but lacking in payoff.

Still, several individual moments and scenes in the show are striking, especially whenever free-trade-coffee obsessed Gary is on the scene. Luverne Seifert breathes a lot of aw-shucks menace into the character, who may be a completely harmless, albeit eccentric, man, or someone with far darker intentions. As always, Sarah Agnew is terrific, here as the lost Judy, who seems mainly to want to hide from the realities of the world and her disintegrating life.

The scenes with Steph and Mark lack the same bite as those in the other household, as if the script never got past the "he's born again, she's suspicious and crazy" beat. Adam Whisner and Maggie Chestovich work well with what they are given. That's especially true of Chestovich, who ramps up Steph to the point that she's like that party guest whom everyone spends the evening avoiding. As Martin, Braxton Baker gives us a nicely contradictory preteen: one whose moods shift at the drop of a hat, and who is desperate for guidance through the madness that swirls around the house.

We all can use a guide through the madness, which Hinkle steadfastly refuses to give any of the characters. By the end, even though much has happened and situations have changed, they are all as lost as in the beginning, just frozen in a fresh pose.