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Boom Town
by Jeff Daniels
Directed by Peter Banholzer
West End Players Guild
November 14, 2014

Matt Hanify, Beth Davis, Carl Overly Jr. Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Matt Hanify, Beth Davis, Carl Overly Jr.
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Jeff Daniels is best known as an actor with a celebrated stage and screen career, but I didn’t know until recently that he’s also a playwright.  For his Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan, Daniels has written several plays including the latest offering from West End Players Guild, the highly emotionally charged Boom Town.  A chilling character study, the play serves primarily as a showcase for its actors, and director Peter Banholzer has assembled an impressive cast that manages to make these not particularly likable characters compelling and the action riveting.

The simple but cleverly designed set by director Banholzer takes us into the kitchen of married couple Stu (Carl Overly Jr.) and Angela (Beth Davis) as they are about to meet with bank loan officer Frank (Matt Hanify), who is there ostensibly to discuss a pending loan extension to support the couple’s small party supply store, which has been suffering poor sales of late.  Soon, however, it becomes clear that Frank is more than just a banker–he’s also on the city council and has a lot to say about a proposed trailer park that Stu thinks will help his store’s business, although Frank and most of the other council members are against it.  It also becomes apparent that Frank and Angela know more about one another than a banker and customer probably should, but both are sure that Stu isn’t bright enough to notice this.  After Stu leaves and Frank and Angela’s relationship becomes more obvious, we get to see the dynamics of how they relate to each other, but that’s really just the beginning.  As the story continues, we learn there’s more to all of these characters than initially meets the eye, and that situations that start out as fairly routine can soon develop into something a lot more chilling.

The difficulty I have with this play is that all three of the characters aren’t particularly likable and the situation, while volatile, doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides allowing these actors to act. I’m not exactly sure what Daniels is trying to say with this play, other than that life can be difficult and adultery has consequences.  It’s the strength of the acting and the direction that make this production worth seeing more than the script.  The set design that allows characters outside the house to be seen approaching adds greatly to the sense of suspense, and the staging is dynamic and compelling.  The lighting design by Jacob Winslow, sound design by Anthony Anselmo, costumes by Tracey Newcombe, and props by Renee Sevier-Monsey all ably support the quality of the production. The most important element of this production, though, is the cast.

A play with a cast of three doesn’t allow for any weak links, and there are none here. Although these characters aren’t exactly lovable (to put it mildly), they are vividly portrayed with depth and energy.   Hanify brings a sense of gradual desperation to the conflicted, weak-willed Frank, and Davis is equally strong as the demanding, conniving Angela. Overly, as Stu, has perhaps the most challenging role, as his character is at first presented to be the play’s obvious villain, although there’s much more to the story, and Overly does an excellent job of portraying the desperation that lies beneath Stu’s tough exterior.  The chemistry between all three performers is strong and affecting, as Hanify and Davis play out their secretive scheme and Overly reacts in surprising, and occasionally terrifying, ways.  The dynamic between the characters is the most fascinating part of this play, with all three players contributing to the drama with intense commitment.

Boom Town at West End definitely isn’t a happy play, and I’m still wondering about the point of it all, although the acting makes up for most of the issues with the story. This isn’t a play to see if you’re looking for a nice, quiet evening at the theatre, and it’s not the play to see if you’re looking for characters to root for. If, however, you’re looking for intense emotions, gritty situations and, most of all, strong acting performances, Boom Town is definitely a play to see.

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