Collision Course 

Who ever said teenagers don't understand death?

In 1981, the year they gave AIDS a name, there was a lot of talk about how teenagers believe themselves to be invulnerable. It was in the context of safer sex education, of course, and usually was accompanied by much hand-wringing, but it was understood to be one of the Great Truths About Kids. "They're not aware of their own mortality," said the experts, "they think they're going to live forever." The way kids have sex, party, drive, the risks they take, were all seen as signs that teenagers don't understand death.

I've mused on this a lot in the past twenty years, and I think it's an oversimplification. Teenagers do understand death -- sometimes very closely -- most of us know someone who took their life as a teen, or tried to, and many of us had siblings or friends who were taken early, either by illness or accident. It might be more accurate to say that for people under a certain age, the stakes aren't as high, or perhaps that the difficulties of coming to adulthood make the states of being and not-being seem of about equal weight. Remember when you became aware that the world wasn't perfect, was perhaps deeply flawed, but you probably couldn't change it?

Playwright Naomi Wallace was influenced to write The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, now getting a thorough staging at the Aurora, by the true story of a group of teenagers playing chicken with a train near her childhood home in Kentucky. A darkly bitter exposé of the American Dream set during the Depression, Trestle comes out swinging and never lets up, pitting two restless teenagers against a society that treats them like criminals, families that assume the worst, and an era that held out little hope for anyone. Tough, science-minded tomboy Pace (played unblinkingly by Jennifer Wagner) and wistful, malleable Dalton (Ian Jurcso, a knockout in his first professional role), are largely left to their own devices, and amuse themselves by conducting a courtship that looks a lot like a mongoose and a cobra sizing each other up and planning their date with a giant steam engine. The trestle they practice running across is long and narrow, the game unforgiving, and it's clear from the outset that a very bad thing is going to happen. But at least it's a vivid bad thing -- like teenagers at any point in history, these two seem determined to burn more brightly than the careworn town around them, their vague, hopeless parents, and the whole grim, still world. The train, at least, is sleek, hard, committed, and in motion -- unlike anything else in their lives.

It's not surprising that Wallace now chooses to live and work in Great Britain -- as she explained in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she finds that the issues that concern her seem to resonate more strongly abroad than they do here. For Wallace, who grew up acutely aware of class inequity in a small town, it is impossible to separate the lives of ordinary people from the politics of their time. And Trestle is deeply political, especially when it turns to the story of Dalton's parents -- Don Hiatt as the trembling, delicate Dray, who has lost his job, and the brittle, desperate Gin (played here by Jessica Powell, whose rangy body looks like it was scissored directly out of a Dorothea Lange photograph), who is barely holding body and mind together, clutching at a husband who is swiftly fading away. Gin works a factory job that leaves her hands glowing in the dark and Dray hides in the house.

Both long for the connection they once had but are unable to break through a wall of disappointment, shame, and impotence. "I don't know how to be part of my life anymore," Dray moans, and backs it up by spending all his time in front of a candle making shadow animals whose existence is as tenuous as his own. When Gin gets involved with a group of people determined to take over an abandoned glass factory and get it up and running, Dray accuses of her of consorting with communists. They have no net, no social support, and they take it out on each other and their hapless son, seemingly the only person in town who believes he can get out.

So it makes sense that Dalton spends so much time with the fierce, manipulative Pace, even though he swears he's not attracted to her. "You don't talk like a girl should," he says dismissively, early on, before she has begun to bend his will to hers. Pace is the only person who's honest with him, the only person who might have the power to change him (a desire he shares with his silent father), the only one who's really paying attention. And what a girl she is! Pace is an actress' dream role, all Svengali and switchblade, a destructive Kali in threadbare cotton. The great horror of this play isn't in the death at its core (although we get a pretty clear picture of how that plays out, how exactly a train treats a human body in its path, without a drop of stage blood), but in the waste of bright human lives, whether they're dead, jailed, or otherwise neutralized.

Above all, Trestle is unrelentingly tense, leavened only slightly by the briefest flashes of humor or affection -- Gin and Dray reminiscing about the early days of their relationship, the pleasure Pace takes in her knowledge of engineering (particularly as it applies to trains and giant engines), jailer Jack Warden cracking wise about the inhabitants of his cells. Otherwise, this is a play thoroughly soaked in despair, a dusty dead-end street of a story about people too beaten down to love and too worn out to care.

It's an effective play, if a tad overlong; there are two scenes near the end of the second act in particular that I thought could be neatly excised without hurting the play one bit. Not the last scene, though, where Pace and Dalton have their closest (yet very odd) moment; the way they find of opening to each other is totally unexpected and affecting. Also, the symbolism is occasionally a little heavy-handed, and points are made with a sledgehammer that could have been brought home with a more delicate tool. That said, Wallace's background as a poet is clear in the language and imagery of the work, especially the recurrence of knives and kissing ("There's nothing to it," says Gin to her horrified son, "Just open your mouth and start chewing", while Pace fantasizes about the train "Cold, lip-smacking steel -- just imagine a kiss like that!") and the elegiac tone for a couple of kids who aren't bad or thoughtless, but deeply affected by the desperate world around them.

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