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Stage Review: The Golden Spike

R.M. O’Brien’s play marred by too much exposition

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The Annex Theater’s “The Golden Spike” never quite gets rolling.

The Golden Spike

Written by R.M. O’Brien

Directed by Mason Ross

Through March 2 At the Annex Theater

Buried within the meandering exposition, parodic nostalgia, undigested history, and superfluous characters that make up The Golden Spike, now at the Annex Theatre, is the kernel of a worthy play. That kernel comes into view when, after 65 minutes of foundering, the show finally rights itself for a closing 10 minutes of strong acting and strong storytelling.

R.M. O’Brien’s play examines the final months of building America’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869. The protagonist, Gil Robinson (Doug Johnson), is a fictional composite of the railroad magnates who used their political and financial muscle to build the tracks between Sacramento, Calif., and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Gil is looking forward to driving in the last golden spike that will connect the two approaching lines in Utah. While he’s waiting for worker unrest to be repressed and construction to be completed, he is interviewed by Cora Allen (Emily Hall), a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, and protected from attacks by Jacob Miller (Rjyan Kidwell), an illiterate miner-turned-bodyguard.

All this exposition is presented quite clumsily in needlessly short vignettes that are interrupted by awkward scene changes. The show never gathers any momentum, because each short burst of information is followed by furniture moving that takes just as long as the preceding scene. Countless characters come and go in these brief scenes without implanting even their names in our memories, much less their personalities.

Director Mason Ross, who did such an impressive job with Peter Shaffer’s Equus at the Annex last year, struggles when confronted with a less polished script. He tries to overcome the show’s fragmentary structure by making it seem like part of an old cowboy movie. Black-and-white footage is screened on a scrim in front of the stage while pre-recorded saloon-piano and cowboy ballads play over the sound system.

Such special effects are difficult to pull off in a low-budget production, and they don’t come off here. Worse yet, the scrim is left up for most of the show, giving the action onstage a gauzy dullness, as if we were watching a TV set with bad reception. Ross had much better luck in Equus with the low-budget effects—the horses’ heads were handmade from brown cloth and cardboard—and he should have learned that boldly imagined low-tech imagery works much better than its half-hearted, high-tech counterpart.

But after an hour of flailing about, the show at last reveals its potential. The scrim comes down. The forgettable characters vanish. The overly short vignettes become sustained scenes. Confronted by striking workers who believe they’ve been mortally cursed by the legendary Thunderbird, Gil tries to reason with them, but to little effect. He’s pushed aside on the platform by Jacob, who delivers a fiery speech, promising his fellow blue-collar workers that he and Gil will go out in the desert and kill the Thunderbird.

It’s a scene strong enough to wake up a sleepy audience. And when the two men march off into the wilderness, the conflicts and cooperation between the entrepreneur and the worker, the rational planner and the superstitious rabble-rouser, the primped-and-powdered Easterner and the rough-and-tumble Westerner make for some compelling theater.

It helps that the two actors playing Gil and Jacob are the production’s best actors by far. Johnson—short and wily in Gil’s all-white suit and hat—captures both the ruthless intelligence and blithe insincerity of the railroad owner. Kidwell, who was so impressive as the psychiatrist in Equus, retains Jacob’s gangly, twitchy rawness, even after Gil replaces his buckskin outfit with blue satin. The pair makes it clear that Gil and Jacob don’t like each other but desperately need each other’s skills.

If O’Brien wants to salvage his play, he should jettison the first hour and begin the show at the construction site where the workers are threatening to strike. He should reduce the number of characters from the 18 listed in the program to just four: Gil, Jacob, Cora, and Landon Griswald, the construction foreman. He should construct longer scenes where Gil holds court in the company office, handing out cynical orders when Landon and Jacob are in the room, but mouthing PR platitudes when Cora enters and the others exit.

The double-sidedness of Cora (fawning interviewer and secret muckraker) and Jacob (loyal sidekick and proud loner) could be further developed through inappropriate romance, strike negotiations, and dispatches to Chicago. This could set up Jacob’s fiery speech and give more substance and resonance to the desert march.

In other words, it could have worked.

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