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THEATER REVIEW : Classic Case of Overkill : 'When Whippoorwills Call' tells of a stranger visiting a dysfunctional Texas family. But the production takes the morality tale to extremes.

September 03, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times.

"When Whippoorwills Call," at the Chandler Studio in North Hollywood, is a bleak but flavorfully acted drama about a dirt-poor Tex as family visited by a stranger who chortles that he is hurrying to his "blue heaven."

Song fanciers will particularly appreciate the dark irony tying the stranger's destiny to the popular jazz age lyric "When whippoorwills call and evening is nigh, I hurry to my blue heaven."

Set in 1939 and looping back to 1919, the play is a curiosity, maddening and mesmerizing at the same time.

As a playwright, Michael Holmes has an ear for the dysfunctional mother/father/daughter/grandpa who reside in a musty, moody hovel of a Depression-era country shack (nicely and sparely rendered by lighting and set designer Boston Hertert).

But as his own director, Holmes reaches over the top, veering from finely etched nuances to overkill--ultimately filling the tiny Chandler stage with excessive human wailing in the service of incestuous tremors, an ax murder and ethereal, arm-flapping flight.

The effect is to reduce this morality tale to an over-ripeness that is off-putting instead of--as intended--tantalizingly involving.

In a program note, Holmes explains that his idea for the play "was inspired and in part freely adapted from two classic European one acts: Maurice Maeterlinck's 'The Intruder' and Rupert Brooks' 'Lithuania.' " Having read neither, we can better see theatrical antecedents in a pair of works closer to home: David Steen's acclaimed Appalachian mountain play, "A Gift From Heaven" (nurtured at the Chamber Theatre in Studio City) and N. Richard Nash's popular '50s Broadway play, "The Rainmaker,"

Like Bill Starbuck in "The Rainmaker," the young stranger here (a vagabond pianist who claims that he once played for Al Jolson) is a bearer of good tidings en route to his "blue heaven." With a pouch full of money, he profoundly changes the family he "accidentally" visits.

Robustly performed with an edge of mystery, the physically towering Joseph Dean Vachon's stranger uncannily reminds you of Burt Lancaster's grinning visage in the movie version of "The Rainmaker" (1956).

As for the twisted family members, they are each distinctively performed, achieving volumes through body language as opposed to verbal language. Making up the demonized clan are Stephanie McGurn's lame, cynical daughter; Gibb Manegold's impoverished farmer and father; Patricia Place's bone-weary, semi-crazed mother; Borah Silver's blind grandpa, and, not least, Tom Ashworth's dirt-stained uncle and visiting fieldworker.

Where and When What: "When Whippoorwills Call." Location: The Chandler Studio , 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 3. Price: $12.50. Call: (818) 780-6516.

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