By Mark Squirek
The poster for Hired Gun pulls a line from Mark Scharf’s deliberately melodramatic meditation on aging, Fender Guitars, delusions, the music business and marriage. “Rock and Roll has never been kind to its old men” declares former rockabilly star Dewitt (Rodney Bonds) near the end of the play. In his case, that is absolutely true. To this I can only add a famous rock lyric that sums up what has become of Dewitt’s life, “…there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”
Each and every one of us wants something back. Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s someone we loved, maybe’s its youth, maybe it’s a cat that ran away. For ninety-nine percent of us what we have lost is a shared experience. We can relate to each other’s loss.
To have lost the fame and adoration that Dewitt once knew is unusual. It is not a something that we can easily relate to for as much as we may have dreamed of that fame, it is still out of our reach. Not many of us have stood on stage as thousands screamed our name, reached out to touch us for salvation or stopped us in the grocery store while we were feeling a melon for freshness to ask for our autograph or a picture.
Boy oh boy, does Dewitt want his fame back. To help him get it he hires the best guitarist he has ever heard, a studio cat who is getting ready to release his own album and tour with his own band for the first time. This is young Jesse (Tucker Foltz). Dewitt’s idea is that, with Jesse’s stunning guitar skills, he will be able to find a record company for his next album by bringing in this hotshot to grace his new songs. Once that happens, Dewitt’s fame is sure to return.
Thin, perfectly dressed, charming and supremely confident, Jesse is everything that Dewitt ever used to be. Even Dewitt’s wife Sherri (Sarah Eberhardt), the sultry, Cheshire-smiling embodiment of the wife who is smarter than all the men around her, is taken by the young man. Unfortunately, this poor woman is surrounded by her obsessed husband, a man who has installed cameras throughout his own house, as well as his cracker-brain thug of a lifetime friend, Red (Mike Ware).
The play opens with a quick spotlight shot of Dewitt in his glory, leather jacket, half-gloves and too-tight rock pants, his arms outstretched in victory. Almost forty years later he is now deeply ensconced in his house and studio deep in the swampland of Louisiana. A portrait of his once young and glorious self sits over his fireplace.
While he has almost everything a man could want, including enough money to drink every day, a wife who tolerates him and a friend to tell him he is right no matter how stupid his ideas are, he wants his youth back. He is bleeding for the fame he once knew. He is starving for the adoration of the crowds, for the vindication of his life that all his success doesn’t seem to give him.
In lesser hands the characters that Scharf has created for Hired Gun could easily become exaggerations of familiar clichés. Even dressed up in guitars and rock and roll, we have seen this before: overwrought, out of control, scene-chewing backwoods folks being visited by a know-it-all Yankee who eventually teach the know-it-all something he didn’t know. In Scharf’s hands the lesson learned is not what we expect. In fact it is very painful, emotionally, mentally and physically.
The playwright gives each of the four roles (and the audience) something much deeper to consider, something bigger than the life they appear to be living. There are spaces he gives the actors that a lesser writer would have filled with needless chatter. Each of the four actors takes full advantage of the leeway he has given them in his tight and very well-constructed script and, with the help of Stacy Bond’s near perfect direction, not once do they ever slip into cliché.
When Dewitt’s wife Sherri meets Jesse for the first time. she asks him if he wants a drink. “You look like vodka to me, colorless.” It would be easy to soak in the laughter that follows such a line, but Eberhardt beautifully glides over to the bar as if the line was part of her everyday life. She smiles at her ability to confuse the young man, but she also knows that she is playing a game and there is no need to revel in each score. There will be plenty down the line.
This is a marvelously mature and very sensual performance as she keeps Jesse at arm’s length while eventually finding something new about herself. Eberhardt’s growth inside the character is real and as she grows we silently hope she will make the right decisions. This is beautiful work from a skilled actor.