There's a tinge of community theater's hustling, DIY spirit running through Playhouse Nashville's first season in residence at Street Theatre Company, negating any possible air of pretension — in fact, we were shown to our seat by company co-founder Nate Eppler, whose comedy Larries premieres in September at TPAC's Johnson Theater under the aegis of Tennessee Repertory Theatre. But DIY or not, Playhouse Nashville's production of Kenley Smith's crime thriller Devil Sedan is anything but amateur.
While waiting for the curtain, Mike Baum's subtle sound design works its magic: The house music is a playlist of vintage rock and gospel, interspersed with sermons and a news story about a murder at the center of the plot, punctuated by blasts of AM radio static that put you right on the front bench seat of a hulking Detroit relic. Then the lights go down and tensions rise as the cast files by to reveal one of the victims, bound and bloody, trying in vain to appeal to her unseen captor's better angels.
The mystery unfolds as a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. This can be a recipe for disaster, but Smith carefully sequences the non-chronological vignettes into a comprehensible thread. With minimal sets and props, and frequent dialogues with unseen characters, it's up to the actors to create the ambience of the hardscrabble rural town where Devil Sedan takes place, a task they tackle with remarkable professionalism.
As Bobby Pence, Tony Morton delicately balances his character's wayward behavior with his well-meaning nature. David Chattam plays Harleigh, Bobby's older brother who acts more as a parent figure. An imposing presence, Chattam at times evokes Samuel L. Jackson. Rosemary Fossee portrays instigator-in-chief Elea Whelan with an eerily convincing nasty streak, which transforms into palpable vulnerability when she finds herself no longer in control of the situation. The experienced Fossee plays a better bad girl than her foil, Kristin McCalley, does a good girl, but newcomer McCalley starts to shine when her character, Marguerite Thaxton, starts to squeeze out from under Elea's thumb. Even the supporting cast members outdo themselves, especially Phil Perry as grease-stained auto mechanic Delmar.
Most of the dialogue feels as natural as chatting with your neighbor, though it does get stilted during a few of the heated exchanges. The comic relief is generally strong, especially in veteran Rachel Agee's two appearances, though some instances feel superfluous. A small amount of drug use and some sexual situations are key to the story, but are handled very gingerly in order to keep the production PG-13 — albeit a spicy PG-13.
The characters are the script's weakest spot. The cast works hard to bring out their subtleties, but sometimes it's a struggle to find them. Devil Sedan is the first play in a trilogy that follows Bobby's life, and long bits of exposition provide backstory that's only helpful in the context of all three plays. Furthermore, there are some inconsistencies that make the Pences' story feel shoehorned into the murder plot.
Harleigh is unbendingly upstanding and Christlike, as opposed to the fundamentalist Christians in the play, who stand out as paper-thin effigies of the most hypocritical elements of the faith. Harleigh is so rigid and devoted to his moral strictures that it seems implausible he would get a murder rap at the hands of any but the greenest or most bigoted detective, and we get no indication the investigating officer is either.
Still, the presentation proves gripping, and the story has a hell of a twist that more than makes up for the script's shortcomings. As with the 1968 Cadillac mentioned in Delmar's closing arguments, the play's rough patches have no effect on its solid frame. And with director Christopher Bosen and his cast as the 472-cubic-inch engine, Devil Sedan is a thrill ride well worth the price of admission.