Llywelyn Jones’ “That Wasn’t Me” is having its premiere at The Players Theatre. You have until this Sunday to see it. By all means do. But if you plan to, be warned. This review contains spoilers. I can’t talk about the play without telling you what it’s about. If you feel like a dark surprise, see the play and come back later.
Welcome back. Where were we? The subject of the play. Right.
It’s a play about drunk driving. But it’s not.
Jones storytelling strategy reminds me of another Jones — James Jones, the author of “From Here to Eternity.” As you’ll recall, that other author involved you in various tangled storylines on Pearl Harbor — then suddenly interrupted them with the Japanese attack. Here, the playwright’s first act plops you into sitcom territory. He introduces you to a flawed-but-lovable bunch of folks: Claire (Eve Caballero), a strong-willed overprotective widow raising Billy, (Gianni Damai) her gifted, shy-but-popular high school football star of a son; Sarah (Ellie McCaw), Billy’s slacker girlfriend who camps out at the house; Michael (Michael Morris) Mom’s new love interest, a lawyer. It’s all very warm-hearted. Then Billy returns from a night of partying — his last, he says. He’s got his wild side out of his system and finally knows what he wants to do with his life. Mom is thrilled. Until the police knock on the door and haul her son away for drunk (and drugged) driving — and an ugly, hit-and-run fatality of a lovely, elderly couple walking their dog. The surprise attack hits. And their lives are never the same.
Jones doesn’t telegraph what’s coming. His only hint: a scene where Billy Hayman, in an orange jump suit, speaks to his imagined 12-year-old self (Brett McDowall) — imagining what he would say to make the boy-he-was not grow into the man-he-is. It’s a surreal, dreamlike moment. It’s easy to miss the implications.
And harder to take when the implications dawn.
Strong material — and winner of the Players’ 2013 New Play Festival. It gets the strong performance it deserves. Director Helen Holliday approaches the material as a series of character-centered vignettes, not a big message. Caballero (a tough-minded performance echoing Edie Falco) and Damai (a tough-but- tortured performance evoking a young Chris Penn) are solid in their lead roles. No slackers in the supporting cast, either. McCaw may play a slacker, but her sense of comic timing is great. Morris does a nice job playing the nice guy. In a performance beyond his years, McDowall gets into the skin of Billy as a child. John Forsyth comes off like a hellfire preacher in snippets portraying a prosecuting attorney.
A great show from a talented cast. But no happy ending.
The attack hits at the end of the first act. Billy’s promising future is a thing of the past. He’s doomed. The second act reveals his long slide into that inevitable doom. Billy’s choices are over. You know where he’s headed.
So, why do a play about a drunk driver in the first place?
It strikes me that Jones set himself the task of honestly imagining the inner and outer lives of a drunk driver. A hard task. “Drunk driver” is right up there with “child molester” and “axe murderer” on the top-ten list of unsympathetic characters. Beyond that, the term itself is loaded, and fights against the imagination. After the hit-and-run accident, “drunk driver” is all the world sees in Billy. He can’t say “That’s not me.” But it’s not all he is. He’s a good person who made a bad choice. Like it or not, that choice defines him. But Jones imagines Billy as a real, three-dimensional person anyway.
We’d like to think “drunk drivers” are a certain kind of people. Bad people.
But they’re people like us who made bad choices.
That truth is hard to take.
But it’s at the heart of Jones’ play.
Like it or not, it’s the truth Jones stubbornly insists on telling you.
IF YOU GO
“That Wasn’t Me” runs through August 31, at Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org