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Haugen takes a bow as director of “American Buffalo”

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TRTC tops off 19th season

By Barbara Dills

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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If you live in or around Carbondale, you’ll be very much at home when you step into Thunder River Theater to see the company’s latest production, “American Buffalo,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet. It’s as if you’ve stepped into the Back Door Consignment Store, the Near New, or Miser’s Mercantile. The play takes place in a similar shop in an unnamed city, although Chicago, Mamet’s hometown, is implied (if you go, listen for clues). The set is chock full of good stuff from the stash of props Thunder River Theater Company (TRTC) has collected in its basement over the years, the kind of good stuff that easily could have passed through any or all of Carbondale’s well-loved secondhand stores at one time or another. You have until July 5 to see this first-rate production, skillfully directed by TRTC’s own favorite leading lady, Valerie Haugen.

A few minutes into the play, any sense of comfort this familiar secondhand store  setting provides is disrupted as the talented cast of three — Owen O’Farrell as shop owner Donnie, Nick Garay as Donnie’s young gofer Bobby, and TRTC Executive Artistic Director Lon Winston playing Teach — engage in the frequently vulgar verbal scuffling that saturates much of Mamet’s work. Be forewarned. If four-letter words (including one beginning with “f” and a misogynistic companion that starts with “c”) turn your stomach, you might not want to eat a big meal before the play. But if you are 17 or older, don’t let this warning keep you away. The profanity is never gratuitous, and TRTC’s production of “American Buffalo” is just too good to miss.

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Mamet, also the author of the play “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which won a Pulitzer and was later made into a popular film, is known for portraying his characters — typically back-slapping, back-stabbing males — through the common talk and “profane poetry” of their dialog. Ten minutes into this play, the shock of the language will subside and you’ll be caught up instead in what one audience member described at intermission as “the river of language” that is “American Buffalo.” Not only that, but the play is funny — at times, laugh-out-loud funny — with humor bordering on slapstick at times, like when Winston, as Teach, hikes his pants up in just the right way at just the right moment. The onstage chemistry between TRTC’s trio of fine male actors is remarkable, and their rendering of three memorable but very different characters comes as much from the timing and delivery of their dialog and gestures as from the script itself.

The plot revolves around a particular buffalo nickel that has passed through Donnie’s store. Its actual value is unknown, but when Donnie and Teach decide it must be worth a fortune, they become obsessed with recovering it from the customer who paid Donnie $90 for it. The coin, and the plot to get it back, work on many levels. On the one hand, the play is about the illusory nature of things and the fact that, as one character portends early in the first act, “Things are not always what they seem to be.” On another level, the nickel — which inspires their greed through much of the play, but in the end doesn’t matter to them at all — represents the decimated American bison. At the same time, the play makes a statement about the mercenary nature of American business in general. “It’s kick ass or kiss ass,” says Teach at one point. Throughout the play, the characters repeat the words “it’s business” to justify both violence and dishonesty; cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught.

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“American Buffalo” is, superficially at least, a rough-edged play about three men, but it’s also a “bro-mance” of sorts, and the TRTC production makes evident the tenderness and loyalty that also bind the characters together. As Director, Valerie Haugen says she wanted to make sure this aspect came through. “What appealed to me about this play, at least in part, was the presence of the more feminine traits in these male characters,” she says. “For example, the play starts and ends with expressions of apology and forgiveness. … Ultimately, all these characters really have is their devotion to one another.”

“American Buffalo” is Haugen’s final appearance as TRTC’s Associate Artistic Director, a position she’s held for most, if not all, of the past 19 years. She’s wanted to direct this play for a long time, so it’s fitting that it rounds out this year’s season. Though she’s moving on to devote more time to her own writing, her many fans can expect to see her back on the TRTC stage in 2015 as Gertrude in “Hamlet.”

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Performances of “American Buffalo” continue June 27, 28, 29 and July 3, 4 and 5. Curtain for the Friday and Saturday evening performances is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets and more information are available at thunderrivertheatre.com or by calling 963-8200.

The Thunder River Theatre Company production of “American Buffalo” continues through July 5. The play takes place in a secondhand store in an unnamed city, although folks from Chicago might recognize some references to their home turf. Photo by Valerie Haugen

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