Can a play be both meaningful and absurd, surreal and specific, all at the same time? English playwright Jezz Butterworth comes pretty close with “The Night Heron,” for which the Rogue Theatre Company has prepared an intensely excellent production.
To describe this play only in terms of its plot and characters seems rather demeaning. It is so much more. But more what? Ahhh, grasshopper, that is the question.
For “The Night Heron” uses rather dispirited characters to pose penetrating questions of religion and philosophy, deception and truth. As directed by Tucson newcomer Bryan Rafael Falcon, this story of hard scrabble survivors in England’s Fens district lives within the grip of the Church, but feeds on its own warped delusions of keeping the faith.
David Greenwood as Wattmore and Joseph McGrath as Griffin are the central figures, reluctant roommates in a rural hovel full of Christian iconography. The Fens area of northeastern England is described as a particularly beautiful countryside full of equally beautiful churches.
To me, a good comparison in atmosphere would be America’s Appalachia, rural and poor in money but rich in scenic beauty and overwhelmingly filled with the spirit of God and Christ. You can’t go anyplace in those hills without Jesus knowing about it.
Wattmore and Griffin also live near Cambridge University, where they have worked as gardeners – essential to the school but never really a part of it.
Their place in the village is rather tossed, what with poverty and all, but becomes even more complicated when they decide to take in a boarder, Bolla (Cynthia Meier). It’s a bit disconcerting when they discover Bolla has a manic side fierce enough to make them believe she might have a police record.
Also brewing is the dark work of Dougall (Christopher Johnson), said by the villagers to be gathering followers to his religious cult.
There’s a murder out on the fens as well, and sightings of a rare night heron blown off course. People are keeping such a tight eye on each other, what they do can often be more important than what you do.
For theatergoers determined to make sense of everything, and to find the logic behind every decision, “The Night Heron” could become annoyingly confusing. To the cast members credit, all find meaning in their individual roles.
So, sitting out in the audience it is better to just ride the story like a wave, lean into the action and keep shifting your intellectual weight to maintain a light-hearted balance. In the end you’ll be rewarded with a wild and crazy ride.