Two men struggle to reach the truth behind an act of violence in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of David Gow’s Cherry Docs, playing through November 7 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.
Gow’s play, inspired by an incident while he was at college in which a gay friend was attacked by a skinhead, places its two characters together in a room. Outside it’s winter--but inside it’s cold, white, and seemingly hopeless. Mike is a young skinhead whose savage attack on an immigrant has resulted in the death of his victim. In a drunken rage, Mike kicked the man repeatedly with his cherry colored Doc Marten steel-toes boots--the "cherry docs" of the play’s title, and part of Mike’s skinhead uniform.
There is no question about guilt, and Mike doesn’t even try to deny perpetrating the attack; but the youth sees himself as the one who was wronged by a system that rewards minorities at the expense of white men like him. At a couple of points, Mike declares that the assault he committed was a reflection of--and a response to--a war in which his "people" (whites of northern European and British ancestry) are besieged, socially, politically, and economically, by "inferior" races. "I am a foot soldier!" he declares, with fierce emphasis.
A member of one of those races Mike hates and fears is Danny, a Jewish lawyer who has been assigned as Mike’s defense lawyer. Danny is deeply conflicted about defending (and, gradually, befriending) Mike, whom he sees as intelligent but misguided and deeply troubled. As much as the two hold one another in scorn and distrust, what becomes clear is that they cannot escape each other’s influence: Danny is Mike’s only hope to get through the trial ahead, and Mike--and those like him--give Danny a moral anchor, something to work for and possibly to save. But even as Danny seeks to engage Mike’s deeper human capacities for compassion and reason, his own liberal sentiments face a bruising test. One way to summarize the play is to note that both characters believe that they belong to a chosen people--but the ways in which they choose to act upon that belief lead them in different directions. Neither, however, treads an easy road.
But Gow’s play is so much more than that. The realms traversed by the play embrace religious notions in conflict and egos struggling against crushing burdens of despair, but at its core the play is driven by a sound moral argument: good and evil may be real and forceful components of human experience, but they are never simplistic and never hermetically sealed. Good people can do evil things, and those floundering in the depths of wickedness can still struggle toward a lifeline of hope.
Tim Eliot as Mike delivers a smart performance that layers inquisitiveness, brute rage, and anguish. Mike is tormented by his guilt, but also sincerely convinced that people like himself are an endangered species; the world around him does little to dispel that notion. (Mike refers again and again to the state as "ZOG," or the "Zionist Occupied Government," a boogeyman the occupies a central place in white supremacist mythologies about world-controlling Jewish cabals.)
As Danny, Benjamin Evett delivers his trademark dry intelligence: Danny is a smoldering bundle of rage trembling on the very brink of an eruption, much as Mike is. When he explodes, it’s pyrotechnic; when he holds back, warning a deliberately provocative Danny that "if I start [hitting you], I might not be able to stop," Mike scores a point, telling Danny that that’s more or less what happened on the night of the fatal assault.
There are truths we tell ourselves about ourselves, and truths we tell ourselves about the world. Then there are truths lurking beneath those fables; that’s where Gow intends to take us, and while he does touch upon those deeper truths, it’s the journey that makes this play remarkable. Jenna McFarland Lord’s scenic design is cunningly keyed in to Gow’s script: a compact little box of a set, the cell where Danny and Mike meet is built in a way that skews and forces perspective, focusing the play’s emotional intensity into an unbearably confined environment that makes you break out in the psychological equivalent of hives.
It’s a remarkable design that lighting designer Karen Perlow is right on board with: floor-level banks of floodlights provide the bulk of the play’s illumination, but light streaming up from grates in the floor define moments in the two characters’ thoughts, while fluorescent lights built into the set’s angled ceiling bring an additional dash of institutional chill to the air.
Gow himself directed a film version of Cherry Docs, and there are cunning cinematic touches throughout--not least of which is Adam Stone’s sound and video design. The set may concentrate the action and the energy like a half-shell built for raw passions, but Stone’s work gives the production a wide-screen gloss.
Director David R. Gammons aims every aspect of the production squarely on the mental and emotional stress that Mike and Danny endure, heightening the dramatic question: will they break? Or will they emerge stronger than before? The answer is surprising and affecting, both to the heart and the intellect.
In terms of production values, writing, direction, design, and topicality, Cherry Docs is first-rate. New Rep has done plenty to be proud of, but this sensational production is a standout even by New Rep’s standards.
Cherry Docs continues until November 7 at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown, 02472.
Tickets cost $28-$58 and can be purchased online at www.newrep.org or via phone at 617-923-8487. Seniors get a $7 discount; student rush price is $14.
Performance schedule: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.. There will be no Saturday 3:00 p.m. performance on Oct. 23. There will be additional performances on Thursday, Oct. 21, at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m.
Talkbacks will be offered following select performances. See the New Rep website at www.newrep.org for details.