In today's society where more than 400 people each day in the U.S. are disabled by mental illness, a five-fold increase since 1955, it makes sense that the arts would begin to reflect the fact that we Americans appear to be going crazy--and not in a good way.
In the "old days," a musical might feature a love triangle, a case of mistaken intentions, a minor hurdle or two before true love would triumph--boy met girl, boy lost girl, boy gets girl back, all with a big finish and rousing chorus of some song that celebrates the eternal fact that love always wins.
Of course, this was all before the advent of Prozac Nation in the late 1980s.
Which brings us to the curious case of Ray (Josh Kemper) , a man with an odd fixation--an uncontrollable desire to hitchhike.
Ray doesn't care where he's going; for him, it's literally not the destination, it's the journey. Playwright Kevin Kostic, who also penned the music and lyrics, presents Ray in the first act of "Unraveled On The Gravel" as a nearly catatonic man of 28, driven to hitchhike, even on the eve of his wedding.
What's behind Ray's compulsion? His pals-since-high-school, Wayne (Mike Milillo) and Marlon (Nick Huber) can't fathom what's gotten into their once-fun-loving friend who, we're told, has been on the decline for several years.
There is one other person on stage, however, who seems to understand all too well what is vexing Ray, an initially unnamed man whom only Ray can see. This man, we later learn, is Wricks (Christopher Jones), Ray's rival for his high school sweetheart, Amber (Sarah Jachelski).
Wricks is the personification of the voice in Ray's head that continually cuts him down, celebrating Ray's every failure for which he has laid the groundwork, chipping away at Ray's sanity. Ray in the second scene sings of "Noise," the never relenting voice in his head, an interesting way to describe the particulars of mental illness.
How Wricks has become a ghost to torment Ray takes us back to Ray's younger days, at 22 and 18. At the core of the mystery is a hurtful letter that someone placed in Amber's high school locker. Did Ray write this letter? Wricks? And when Marlon and Wayne pick up on a news story about a young man found dead off the side of the road, there's a connection to Ray that sets the stage for the next 10 years of Ray's anguish and his obsession to "hit the gravel," thumb in the air, mind gosh knows where.
At the play's core lies a very intriguing question: what trumps love? Is there something even more precious to us? For Ray, there is, and when he makes his choice and celebrates his liberation, one can sense a tremor of disappointment in the audience...but also a sense of relief and understanding. Afterall, what good is being with the one you love if you are insane?
Don't expect sweet melodies and toe-tapping tunes in this musical. Kostic writes in the Stephen Sondheim vein; that is, songs that are more like soliloquies set to music; the actors more "talk" than sing. In fact, I found myself wondering if this work might have been as effective, perhaps even more powerful, as "straight drama"-why a musical? Music does provide Ray an appropriate medium of expressing his mental illness; it's like a song he can't get out of his head, quite literally, as Ray sings "Who the hell am I? Who the hell am I?", a refrain that repeats throughout the play.
Ray is like a man lost at sea, though it is a sea of gravel, and his unraveling makes for just over 90 minutes of intriguing dramatic entertainment.
Despite the dark themes, Kostic occasionally lightens the mood with comic asides, as Marlon and Wayne debate the signs of a woman's romantic interest. Kudos to costume designer Tori Halperin Kuhns if only for finding a ThunderCats silk shirt for Japanese anime lover Marlon who is cast especially well--the consummate high school nerd who eventually becomes a bilingual power-geek, constantly taking business calls on his cell phone.
Sarah Jachelski has a difficult role in Amber, a character who is tortured herself by never learning what it is that is making her fiancée crazy. Christopher Jones is excellent as Wricks, a man who exists only in Ray's mind, but makes his presence the most powerful on stage, his movements always smooth and fluid, like a stream of gentle malevolence. Jones also has the best voice in the cast, some of whom are best suited for non-musical roles (too many instances of singers swallowing words, losing volume/projection or singing off-key). Kemper is convincing as Ray, a man whose joy for life helped him win Amber's heart, but it is this same sensitivity that makes him prey to his own "unraveling."