Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 3, 2009

Railroad Bill

Chester Theatre Company, Chester MA
through August 9, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, an audience watched and listened intently to the world premiere of "Railroad Bill" by TJ Edwards. Described, in part, by Chester Theatre Company's Artistic Director Byam Stevens as "a time when America has its first mixed race president and is experiencing the immediate after-effects of a financial crisis fueled by unbridled speculation, 'Railroad Bill' struck me as an amazingly timely play." Indeed it is, especially as this caustic farce seems to channel the obstreperous segment of the population that broadcasts its intent to torpedo the present administration and to fan racial fears. The script manages to offend any honest publishing houses (as distinguished from the bottom-feeders), as well as whites ("there's no such thing as 'Caucasian'"), blacks, African Americans, Jews, Muslims ("and the camel they rode in on"). There's even a gratuitous joke on feminine hygiene, included, one speculates, for the shock of it.

"The Opportunists" could be the subtitle of playwright Edwards' latest play. The discovery of a handwritten journal by the notorious Railroad Bill (an altruistic train robber who shared his booty with the poor) sets off a mad effort by four greedy individuals to make a killing selling the manuscript to a publisher. Upholding CTC's high standards, the production values befit this esteemed Equity theatre. The set (designed by David Towlun) becomes flexible by simply moving a utility cart. Lara Dubin, lighting designer, creates windows by shining spotlights on the wall. Director Regge Life moves the cast about when it's natural to do so.

And, the cast is excellent. Charles Stransky (Abe) is a wheeler-dealer sociopath. His body language includes the tics of smugness (e.g., shoulder twitch). His bombast, insincerity, unconscionable prejudices, and unsupportive sense of entitlement creates a character worthy of contempt. Warren Jackson (Jess), the hapless intern is believable as one who catches the greed bug and also wrestles with his conscience. Melissa Miller (Sam) is a frisky sexpot whose moods and tactics changes are spot on. As Jones who epitomizes concern for his fellow African-Americans, Terry Alexander is as slick as snake oil.