I’m familiar with small Middle Tennessee agricultural communities like the one depicted in Memphis playwright Tom Dillehay’s play, Temple of the Dog. I grew up in a hot, hilly place where people worked hard and even the kids who didn’t live on farms learned to pitch hay and castrate pigs before they learned how to drive. It was a place where one disability could cripple an entire family. Where young bullied gay men sometimes killed themselves, or were driven to recklessness and rebellion by religious families wanting only the best. Although I’ve encountered every character in Temple of the Dog before in plays by Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams, I’ve also known their real world counterparts. Even if the symbolism is spread thick and the actors are forced to gargle a few patches of contrived dialogue, there’s something real about Temple of the Dog that merits attention.
To showcase Dillehay’s promising new work Voices of the South unleashed the considerable talents of Director Stephen Huff (Copenhagen) and journeyman actors John Maness (Kiss Me Kate) and Pamela Poletti (All My Sons). Maness takes on the role of Taylor, the family’s volatile, horny patriarch. Taylor lost the use of his legs (and at least one other thing) to a stroke, and seems determined to make everybody else as miserable as he is. Even Maness can’t quite pull off the play’s more melodramatic lines about knowing what other people, “do in the dark,” but he finds a lot of dimension in a role that might easily be written off as just another peckerwood.
As a god-drunk mom with nascent pagan tendencies and a lot of repressed memory, Poletti isn’t given much to do other than epitomize traditional marriage, and a woman’s contractual duty to her no-account hound of a husband. That’s almost enough. And when her feet leave the ground and she she wraps herself around the man hitting her man, you know you’re in the presence of an actor.
Atam Woodruff gives a solid performance as Ben, an 18-year-old gay man taken out of school young to provide for his family. He’s got a sore on his foot that he doesn’t want anybody to see. He describes it as an on-the-job injury. It might be a burn or a lesion. It might just be a symbol-loving author marking a character that wants out. Ben’s seduction of his younger cousin Ricky Lee is both intensely creepy and the closest thing to love you’ll find in Temple of the Dog. As Ricky Lee, Aris Federman is tasked with some of the plays most difficult dialogue. Following the attempted seduction and the horrible death of his pet, the young boy snaps. Like a howling predator he runs through the woods on all fours chasing rabbits. The event is recounted in a detailed and decidedly Shepardesque monologue.
In contrast to Poletti's supplicant presence, Rachel Everson provides strong, brassy support as a straight-talking home health provider.
What’s most interesting about Temple of the Dog is its transitional setting. Between bad luck, bad decisions, and a bad stroke Taylor’s family has lost its connection to the land it used to work. Purpose is up in the air. Tradition is twisted and broken. Identity is a commodity precious enough to feud over. The action occurs in a god-haunted, hand-me-down house, where love struggles to grow. Where children are tied to the land, and where ancient social codes don’t fit so easily in a modern world. The script still needs pruning and some of the play’s more over-the-top moments test the limits of credibility. But this is a very different vision of the South than what we’re used to seeing from Voices of the South. And welcome.