Lanford Wilson's The Rimers of Eldritch, a 1966 work by the respected playwright about murder and small-town small-mindedness, is one tough axe to sharpen. The storytelling is fragmented, fugue-like, time-scattered and repetitive. The attitude is bleak, accusatory and autumnal.
Neither Northern Kentucky University's cast of 17 nor director Mary Jo Beresford have marshaled dramatic forces sufficient to the challenge. They don't clarify the play's topsy-turvy structure. (The murder for which Wilson puts his decaying town through a two-act trial does not occur until five minutes before the end.) Nor does Beresford's stately pace and freeze-frame staging give the staccato writing the headlong urgency it deserves.
Eldritch, a tiny Missouri coal town, started to die when the coal petered out and the mine closed. In decline it has become a grim, preacher-ridden hellhole where viciousness masquerades as morality and hearsay substitutes for evidence when a murderer goes on trial, ironically for killing a man as he engaged in an act of heroism. Just as hoarfrost rimes windowpanes in winter, obscuring the outward view, so Eldritch's citizens — with minds as boarded up as the town's stores — distort facts through a rime of smug, inward-looking prejudice.
It is not to be ignored that the roles of judge and fire-belching preacher (played by Nick Vannoy) are merged into a single character. Nor is it any surprise that two razor-tongues in rocking chairs (Allison Muennich and Sara Renauer) keep a spew of gossip simmering. The only character attracting sympathy is, as a harpy describes her, the "beer-swilling harlot" who runs a tavern; S. Elizabeth Carroll plays her with attractive warmth.
Jerky light cues (J.C. Stamper) emphasize the narrative shards rather than smoothing them. The multi-level, plank-walled set (Ronald A. Shaw) is too neat and orderly to reflect the town's festering atmosphere. Grade: C
THE RIMERS OF ELDRITCH, presented by Northern Kentucky University, continues through Sunday.