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Better Days 

An imaginative, intelligent account of the lives of two families broken by the Great Depression

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
The Train Station Theater Lab's debut production is a remarkably imaginative and intelligent telling of the lives of two families broken by the Great Depression. The Tillers send their oldest daughter, Harvest (Gillian Chadsey), off to find work in the fields and send money home. Concurrently, Chase Butler (David Tenenbaum) runs away from the big city on a romantic whim to see America's vast, open spaces before going to college. Harvest and Chase meet up in the Pullman cars, while the Tillers lose their farm and the Butlers become victims of the stock market. Though Harvest and Chase are the central characters, the play (written by Chadsey, using transcripts collected by the Federal Writers' Project) doesn't have a stable narrative structure, which would have ruined it anyway. Instead, it's a series of scenes comprised of both interwoven monologues and straight dialogue, connected by movement and traditional folk music (arranged by Clive Worsley). The result is stunning: Rather than forming a story arc in which characters proceed from Point A to Point B, the characters' fractured lives emerge from an equally fractured internal scene structure. For example, Mrs. Butler (Michelle Talgarow) swallows her pride to ask for assistance, her lines overlapping with those of Harvest's younger sister (Meridith Crosley) as she spells "malnutrition." Other beautifully rendered scenes cover the expanse of the Midwest. Mrs. Tiller fights through a dust storm (Talgarow uses the Suzuki method, creating slow-motion movement); Harvest and Chase jump in and out of trains (Chadsey and Tenenbaum are detailed physical actors); and lunch-room customers form an orchestra, make music with their utensils, and ask, "How much for coffee?" and "Can I order?" Sometimes the play errs on the side of excess, with perhaps too many scenes, some of which (like an amusing, Chaplin-esque silent movie about pecan pickers) don't seem to fit. But the outstanding ensemble, lightly and magically orchestrated by director Kent Nicholson, creates an innovative and entertaining evening of theater.

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Karen McKevitt


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