Azeotrope’s “25 Saints” is grim and brutal and it packs a mean whack to the gut. I should tell you I saw this production, the Seattle premiere of the Joshua Rollins play, some 30 hours after learning about something violent that happened to someone in my own world. So I found myself particularly squirmy and eye-averse during the last violently gripping minutes of the play.
Then again, Azeotrope, in what it chooses to produce, wants to prod all of us towards humanity’s underbelly. With “25 Saints,” it shoves us into the desperation of meth makers in Appalachia and their thirst for a life that isn’t “mountains and gravel roads. Wal-Marts and trailers.”
The play is set in a cabin. It’s dingy and trashed. It’s got a sheet as a window shade. It’s also got a large oak trunk. That’s the trunk where Charlie (Tim Gouran) and Tuck (Richard Nguyen Sloniker), both 20somethings, end up stuffing a gunshot-wounded Deputy Vance in the opening scene. That is, before Charlie grabs a hammer and pounds the pulpy Deputy in the head.
Charlie and Tuck have good reason for wanting to kill the guy. We learn why early on. But before they get rid of the body, and before they head out to their notion of paradise (Virginia Beach. Sand; piña coladas), they have to scrub out the blood in the carpet, Hefty bag a bloody sheet. And they’ve also got to cook up a batch of meth.
Charlie’s got a debt to pay off — a mess left behind by his younger brother. (Now gone). He’s also heart-heavy for the girlfriend named Sammy (Libby Barnard) that the brother also left behind. Charlie’s come back to dirt-poor Appalachia. His intended future had been college. Now he’s got 30 hours to make meth with his brother’s partner, Tuck. And he’s screaming at Tuck. Twitchy Tuck. Tuck who chomps on Sour Cream and Onion Pringles and thinks it’s OK when a piece of Pringle falls into a pot of about-to-be meth.
“There’s something else out there. Come on, man…We can make our own way,” Charlie begs Tuck. It’s so close. Freedom. Something better. Those piña coladas. And you’re sucked in because the performances by Gouran and Nguyen Slonicker are spot-on potent and anguished. Their screaming, their frustration, their bond is believable. We’re with them in this WTF reality, the guys on the crappy couch and Sammy, the girlfriend, who’s in a zombie state until she’s achingly wistful and then, she and things get unleashed. In a horrible way.
After watching a different Azeotrope production the week prior (“Red Light Winter” by Adam Rapp, which Azeotrope is doing in repertory with “25 Saints” as part of The Central Heating Lab at ACT), an usher asked me afterwards, “Was it entertaining?”
“Uh, no,” I stammered.
Like “25 Saints,” it was heavy and sad with rousing moments that had nothing to do with "Red Light Winter's" full-frontal nudity (male and female) and more with the fact that, again, a somewhat seedy story emerges as something unflinchingly real.
That’s credit to director Desdemona Chiang who, with Azeotrope co-founder Nguyen Sloniker, has the nerve to choose material that jabs at our insides.
I’ve seen Nguyen Sloniker several times (Azeotrope’s “Jesus Hopped the A Train;” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries;” “Boeing Boeing” at The Seattle Rep) and he’s always so so good, whether he’s being desperate or vulnerable or full of swagger. In “25 Saints,” he’s lost and frantic and soft. Even messed up people crave human connection and he finds it, ever so briefly, with a meth-addicted pizza delivery driver named Sasha (Mariel Neto, who knows how to do crazed, beat-up, tweaked-out so well).
There’s also a calculatedly vicious sheriff (James Lapan, who plays him with just the right amount of toughness). His partner Miss Duffy (Mary Murfin Bayley) is the least satisfying, never coming across as bitchy enough or even remotely menacing — even with a shotgun in her hand.
But you go see “25 Saints” for Barnard's Sammy, who pivots from freaked out to furious. And for Gouran, who is masterful as someone who grows smaller, crushed by life’s worst nightmare.
“25 Saints” opens, literally, with a shock and that ending – (expletive! Please! No.)
Entertaining? Uh…well. But oh so damn worthwhile.