Mine Alone

The Independent Eye, at Old City Stage Works, 115 Arch St., through Mar. 31, 925-2838.

We look into the set for Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller's Mine Alone by looking through a wall. For the set, representing a farm house in central Iowa, includes all four walls of the room. The actors enter through a doorway upstage, or peer through a window downstage; but otherwise we catch glimpses of them between the naked two-by-four studs of the walls, from which all but a few shreds of lath and plaster and wallpaper have been stripped away.

The play itself has, similarly, been stripped down, leaving not a shred of comfort, dignity or solace clinging to its skeletal framework. Ackerman (Bishop), the grim patriarch of the family, is so deep in debt that he can't get a bank loan for seed. His wife Esther (Fuller) is sliding into acute arthritis, incontinence, senility and paranoia. Their son Don (Kevin Augustine), a failing go-getter businessman with a chip on his shoulder as large as South Dakota, has come to the family homestead, along with his schoolteacher wife Wendy (J.J. Van Name), with papers for Ackerman to sign that, he promises, will solve the farm's debt problems and, not incidentally, his own.

Don's motivations, couched in the concepts of "stewardship" and "God's will" that he has learned in church, are not as altruistic as he lets on; nor, for that matter, are Wendy's, despite her idealistic prattle about adopting refugee orphans and starting a family. But Don's deceit and hostility, we learn, are par for the course in the Ackerman family, perpetuating a pattern of spouse abuse, patriarchal violence and filial revenge that Don's parents still freely practice, on Don and on one another.

Grim stuff, this. Mine Alone has all the features of early-middle Eugene O'Neill (of the Beyond the Horizon and Desire Under the Elms stripe), including an obsession with the land, turgid language, and a total absence of any sense of humor. Here, as in O'Neill, and as in 19th-century "you must pay the rent" melodrama, a plot about mortgages, foreclosure and evictions gives the playwrights the opportunity to explore the great American themes: the "heartland," ownership, and what O'Neill generically calls "possessors self- dispossessed."

Sometimes Mine Alone is poetic and eloquent, as in the revealing monologues (mostly by Wendy and Don) inserted between the principal scenes. At other times, the weight of human suffering is so oppressive that the characters and the play are rendered virtually speechless: at one point Esther is reduced to howling like a wounded animal, and Ackerman, after spending years telling his wife to "shut her trap," can now only look on, silently and impotently, while he cooks for her and changes her.

The actors' performances of this miserable material are quite impressive. Once you get past the wigs, the fake age and the Iowan accents (authentic, in Bishop's case), Bishop and Fuller are both terrifying and touching, particularly in their last desperate actions. Augustine manages to make his despicable character understandable, if not likable. And Van Name bravely betrays the subtle venality beneath her character's cheerfulness.

Mine Alone, first mounted by Bishop and Fuller in Denver in 1990, shows yet another side of The Independent Eye, and yet another side of Bishop and Fuller's talents as playwrights. It is certainly not as enjoyable as their radio vignettes, their hand-puppet miniatures, or their crazed satiric comedies; but it is certainly as well-crafted, and arguably as deep.

Just don't go expecting to have a good time.

-- Cary M. Mazer