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THEATER REVIEW : A Trail Worth Exploring : Thanks to a talented cast and an insightful director, a play about a postwar Texas family succeeds.

July 08, 1994|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VAN NUYS — Life in small-town America hasn't changed that much in this century. The winds of modern sensibility blow through them today on the small screen, but Main Street is still the only busy street, and the lives of the people go on as ignominiously as always.

That's why it's good to look back with a novelist or playwright, into their insightful memory of what yesterday was, and ask the question, "Have we learned anything, have we grown, are we better?"

The Rucker family--in Brady Thomas' memory play, "The Chisholm Trail Went Through Here," about life just after World War II in the dusty flatlands of Texas--looks very much like similar families of that time. Industrial progress and fate have almost whittled them down to their knees. Their cattle are gone, their hopes decaying, their dreams kept alive in simple pleasures. Their story is painted on a dramatic canvas as wide as West Texas in a rich, colorful and extremely affectionate production at the Road Theatre.

The honesty and depth of Thomas' memories are not part of a story with a beginning, middle and end. This is a visit with real people, doing real things, and being themselves with their love, their anger, their passion and lust worn simply on the sleeves of dresses that are a few years out of style, on boots that track in the mess of chickens, not that of healthy, valuable cattle.

James McDermott's setting doesn't forget the water stains on the wallpaper; Mary Jane Miller's costumes remember that stockings had seams, and that they were often crooked, and Stephanie Losleben's lighting knows about the sunlight that can bake dying earth.

But it is director Taylor Gilbert's insight and empathy that mostly re-creates the world of the Ruckers' despair, with a sense that that despair is only skin-deep, and underneath is a faith that, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, everything will be all right.

Gilbert balances the play's moods and often symphonic rhythms expertly. There are stretches that some directors might cut because they slow almost to an idle. But they are as much of moment here as the fireworks.

The entire cast is impeccable in its dedication to re-creating this microcosm, this one room that stands for a whole state, for a whole country that has lost its will, as Texas lost its cattle empire and, later, its oil empire.

David Gianopoulos, as the hard-driven younger brother whose anger is too big for the Ruckers' reduced circumstances, is a perfect match for Christopher Faville's older brother, content to paint and play the piano and keep mom company. Tawni Tamietti, as the 11-year-old granddaughter, and Susan Rome as the mother cleaning city offices while trying to educate herself, are just right as two generations finding each other.

A very truthful part of this world is Patrick James Clarke's desperately cheerful loser, seemingly bound to destroy everyone around him, and Eve Brent's deaf aunt who's not as deaf, as simple, nor as pleasant as she'd have them believe.

But the family, and the mood, is held together by Patricia Herd's luminous, unflappable mother, Mae Rucker. Herd plays Mae as though something unusually beautiful is going on behind her gentle, caring and optimistic surface, a graceful portrait of an indomitable matriarch who could only have lived in that time, and that place.

Where and When

What: "The Chisholm Trail Went Through Here."

Location: The Road Theatre, 14141 Covello St., No. 9-D, Van Nuys.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, Ends Aug. 9.

Price: $12.50.

Call: (818) 785-6175.

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