I've probably seen the same portrait of Christ in hundreds of Wisconsin homes and churches. Dated and pastel, with a white Jesus beaming at the sky, it tells me a lot about the place I'm visiting and the people who congregate there. Seeing the same picture in Mercury Players Theatre's The Arsonists (through May 25 at the Bartell Theatre's Evjue Stage) helped me figure out exactly where I was.
The play opens in Plainfield, Wis., in 1957. Jim Niehaus (Coleman), a local auto shop owner, returns home to his wife, Esther (Stephanie Robey), gun in hand from an unsuccessful deer hunt. It quickly becomes apparent that the uneasy dialogue between the two is more than Midwestern reserve or frustration about the hunting trip. Someone in Plainfield has done something horrible, and the pair dance around the details until their younger friends Bob (Edric Johnson) and Meryl (Elizabeth Chen) arrive. Bob, Jim's coworker at the shop, is not one to dance around anything. As the bad news spreads and grisly particulars are revealed, the two couples clash. The entire town is soon thrown into a media frenzy that threatens careers, marriages and a quiet way of life.
Ed Gein's name doesn't emerge until the second half of The Arsonists, and it's impressive that it does so without seeming gimmicky. Solid performances don't hurt. Johnson brings nuance to the oddball Bob, who's a quintessential Sconnie except for his Canadian-ish accent. Mononymous actor Coleman, in the role he originated in Mineral Point's Shake Rag Alley in 2010, embodies the kind of elder who's rattled only by impropriety. There were a few issues with timing this weekend, and few '50s phrases sounded a bit tinny, but these are minor complaints.
Playwright Caleb Stone's subtle humor and winking reflections on ephemera like Leave It to Beaver -- which premiered about a month before Gein's arrest -- deserve praise. The characters who want Gein dead blame his crimes on mental illness a little too quickly, and the story wraps up a little too neatly, but in general, the script is strong.
In all, Mercury Players Theatre respects the quirks that make The Arsonists' characters unique. Instead of turning these people into a joke, the cast members point out their peccadilloes with enough heart to remind you of home.
[Editor's note: This story was corrected to remove an inaccurate link to a Twitter account.]