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CPT’s “American Falls” is an existentialist tale of yearning and destruction

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

The existentialists ask, “What does it mean to exist?  What is our purpose in being?”  “American Falls,” Miki Johnson’s drama which showcases eight people living in a small town—six alive, two dead—is an existentialist exercise.

The Cleveland Public Theatre production probes “the inner life of everyday people desperately seeking meaning and love on the razor’s edge of transcendence and despair.”

Much in the vein of Thornton Wilder’s classic, “Our Town,” “American Falls” takes place in a small town, populated by people who examine life from birth through death and thereafter.  Neither give answers, but much in the pattern of Talmudic scholars, asks questions.

Wilder’s heroine, Emily Webb asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”  Wilder goes on to observe:  “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.”

Lisa, one of the dead characters states, “I mean, we do these things.  We spill coffee down our sleeve, we read the labels on soup cans, we honk our horns and floss our teeth and cry and sing and swallow and turn on light switches and turn them off again and get places on time and get places late and watch TV and we get upset when a storm takes out the electricity and we blink and open drawers and sometimes forget to close them again and write ourselves reminders.  All these things.  And it’s nothing.  It’s all nothing. And it’s everything . . .It’s so lovely, so kind that this is how it ends.

The play starts with the line, “Let me tell you a story.”  And, what a story it is.  A story of intrigue, yet, ordinariness.  A tale of horror, yet one of longing.  The events appear to be a natural outlet for probing about life by Miki Johnson, born and nurtured in the small town of Green, Ohio (near Akron).

In one suspended period of time, we hear the tales of Lisa, a new suicide, who relates her life of abuse, while we view her former husband, Samuel, transform himself from ranting male to psychotic female…denuding himself of all bodily hair, putting on a wig, as he explains to an uncomprehending young boy why he is not really the child’s biological father, because his mother had an affair .  As this part of the tale unravels, the boy’s real father is interacting with two friends in a bar, and a Native American shoe salesman tells about his magical shoes, “Not bullshit magic, real magic.”  Samuel’s dead mother relates her tale of depression, alcoholism, mothering 11 children, and the mistakes of her life.

The stories continue, some funny, some sad, but all filled with some sort of heartache and pain, and how life carries on with losses and gains.

Johnson uses numerous pop references in her tale-telling.   She refers to Budweiser beer, National Public Radio, Terry Gross interviews, Frank Capra movies, and “Law and Order:  Special Victims Unit” in her metaphoric descriptions of the story of life.

The characters are bound by geography, but, most by being humans and probing for the whys of their existence.

The performances, most of which are presented in monologue form directly to the audience, are compelling.  Each member of the cast, Darius Stubbs, Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer, Chris Seibert, PJ MCready, Ryan Edlinger, Dionne D. Atchison, and Anthony Sevier is convincing in being, not acting, his/her character.

Capsule judgement: “American Falls” is not an easy sit.  If takes concentration.  As Raymond Bobgan, the director, states in his program notes, “This journey requires curiosity, attention and a yearning for something wonderful to happen.”  Each will take his/her own journey in this complex piece.

“American Falls” continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through December 20, 2014.  For tickets go to: 216-631-2727 or go to