'The General Store' review: a flicker in the darkness

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CREEDE — A parable of a nearly extinct truckstop in rural eastern Colorado tries to be a beacon of hope in dark times but is more of a flickering match. Nevertheless, Creede Repertory Theatre's world premiere of "The General Store" is an ambitious sight to behold.

Written by Brian Watkins, the script blends horror and comedy together and plays with genre tropes. During an isolating blizzard like in “The Thing,” storeowner Mike finds his friend Jim inside the building searching for the source of a mysterious bump in the floorboards. As the day progresses another regular, Rick, enters and eventually Jim’s daughters Nikki and Greta, too. Each character has a method to deal with the lurking creature while bringing their own baggage.

Zombified by alcohol and trucker pills, Ben Newman’s Jim is an essentially homeless wanderer. Newman, best known for guest role as Jeremiah Rogers on "Grimm," brings fresh star power to the stage. Logan Ernstthal’s Mike channels axe-wielding mania into the optimistic businessman. Though it’s been 57 days since a customer walked through his doors he maintains that he “will rebound.” Rick, played by Stuart Rider, serves as comedic relief, constantly shambling mummy-like into unsubtly telegraphed trouble. The trio’s natural dialogue combined with slapstick scenes might as well make the play Stephen King's The Three Stooges.

Caitlin Wise once again shows her aptitude for playing a character younger than herself with her super believable portrayal of the teenage prophet Nikki. As the more rebellious daughter, she tells Mike to "Get with the times." While Bethany Eilean Talley’s Greta is rough around the edges and stilted, the ensemble and other aspects of the play make up for it.

The set design is absurdly detailed instead of the common abstraction seen in a theater. Antique signs, taxidermy and license plates adorn the store’s interior. An actual pot of coffee—not a prop—is made during conversation. I felt like I was in Creede's Downstream Gas & Mercantile.

The fantastic use of a licensed diegetic soundtrack via the store's radio is something I haven't scene outside of a musical before. Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," comes over the airwaves as a drunk and drugged Jim describes why he likes Colorado.  When he tell how Mike warmly greeted him the first time they met the lyrics "touching me, touching you" play right on cue. 

Nikki sees the beast as an opportunity instead of heralding doom. As she tosses out the idea to turn it into a cash cow sideshow, Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams" can be heard. These tunes further ground the story in reality, if at times it may be a little too on the nose.

Unfortunately, the motivations of the monster are unclear as its murky blackness. For Mike, the monster is a metaphor for change. "I've worked too damn hard," says Mike about losing to a competing business. "I'm just trying to provide." Both Rick and the monster are waiting for him to give up the store yet Mike says he'll wait it out.

However, for Jim it's a metaphor for loneliness. "What's it like being alone?" asks Greta. "Looking at the hole, that's what," says Jim. Jim explains that he wants to go back to a fearless age when people talked to each other and loved one another more.

The monster could simply be the general concept of fear, but that lack of specificity hurts the thrust of the narrative's denouement. When exactly was that time Jim is nostalgic for? His sentiment reminds me of folks who yearn for the 50s, but that decade was only beneficial for straight white men.

More importantly, Mike didn't explicitly do anything to conquer his demon. That could be interpreted as perseverance, yet there's no evidence that his character grew or adapted in the face of adversity. The only decision he made was to retire from—instead of close—the general store. In that sense Mike did give up. Not only that but he passed the burden of the failing business onto his daughters. 

Though there are cracks in the floorboards, the foundation is strong enough to make the play worthwhile.

“The General Store” is playing at CRT’s Main Stage now through Sept. 16. It is rated R and tickets are available at 719-658-2540 or at www.creederep.org.

Verdict: Recommended.

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