By Manning Harris
Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre is presenting another world premiere (earlier this year there was Artistic Director Grant McGowen’s “Let’s Make It”); this time the playwright is homegrown Atlantan Britton Buttrill’s “Scratching,” running through September 15. Mr. Buttrill, incidentally, now lives in Brooklyn.
Among the themes this rather dark, powerful play presents is that of the failed artist. In his introduction to the published version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams writes of the struggling artist: “The sort of life that I had had. . . was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight…”
Christian (Barrett Doyle) had a desire to be a painter; he’s an art school graduate. We see that he’s done a copy of a Jackson Pollock painting, but now he has become, literally, a “scratcher,” one who tattoos illegally and is looked down upon by professional tattoo artists. In other words, he can’t even succeed at this “substitute” art form. The play begins with Christian’s tattooing his own chest in a ramshackle south Georgia dwelling he shares with his girlfriend Brianna (Julissa Sabino).
“Scratching” is, to me, actually quite a naturalistic work: Naturalism was a literary movement of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that used stark realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity, and environment had an inescapable force in shaping people’s lives. It is not cheery. Ibsen and Strindberg, among others, were early proponents. The Russian playwright Maxim Gorki, in his play “The Lower Depths, said “We’re all of us tramps—why, I’ve heard that the very earth we walk on is nothing but a tramp in the universe.”
Back to south Georgia. Brianna evidently had real training as a dancer: She shows us that in a moody, nocturnal demonstration. However, like Christian, she has sublimated her desire to dance legitimately and is now a stripper at a truck stop. It pays, and they need the money.
Things get more dire when Brianna visits local bad boy Adrian (Bennett Walton) to sell MDMA (ecstasy), which he fronts her on the condition that she sells it—pronto. There are threats of violence. By this time, a fourth character has entered the scene: Tracy (Stephanie Friedman), who’s from New York and has had prior enmeshments with Christian, whom she can’t get out of her mind. More than the others, Tracy seems really out of her element in this environment, and Ms. Friedman is quite compelling in showing us Tracy’s fear, desire, and hopelessness.
“Love and death make the world go round,” someone says, and all four characters are soon involved with one another, whether through desire, threats, or violence. At one point Adrian offers to let Brianna off the hook for drug payment if Christian will tattoo a swastika on Adrian’s back. Christian refuses. Why? By this point the characters’ motivations become a bit murky to me, but they are all sinking into “the lower depths.”
Nichole Palmietto makes her professional directing debut with “Scratching,” and she does a nice job in eliciting fine performances from her actors, especially the always reliable Barrett Doyle, who has become Pinch ‘N’ Out’s go-to guy, especially with fledgeling playwrights. I’d like to see Mr. Doyle in a light, wacky comedy; I think he’d be excellent, and he’s earned it.
Mr. Buttrill is on his way, and I think he has enormous potential. After all, Tennessee Williams had several middling successes before the leaves turned gold with “The Glass Menagerie.” It’s not easy being an artist.
For more information, visit pnotheatre.org.