It's not often that I find a play too short. Usually the opposite is the case: I discover that I've wandered into the theatrical equivalent of a long traffic jam, and while everyone around me can escape off the nearest ramp, I'm obligated to stay in the mess till the very end. After all, what if something miraculous were to happen late in act two? What if the writing or the acting were suddenly to soar? Chained to my seat by such scruples, I've several times had to endure the full length of a terrible play. If I hadn't been a critic, I would have hightailed it at intermission.
But too short a play: That's a rare occasion. So in that regard at least, Sweet Storm is extraordinary. Scott Hudson's 75-minute love story introduces us to two Tampa Bay area characters, helps us learn some important details about them, shows them making a little progress in their romance – and then, abruptly, it's over. Say what? Weren't we just getting acquainted?
True, Hudson doesn't show much of a flair for advancing action even in that first hour and a quarter, and the cornpone sincerity of his characters gets a bit much even after brief contact. But in the last moments of Sweet Storm, the main characters do take some important forward steps, and we can't help but wonder, what'll happen next? The answer is: nothing. The play is over. Finis. The actors come downstage for their final bows and we're left wondering if we missed something — for example, a second act.
Maybe the local setting is what drove the thoughtful people at Gorilla Theatre to program this exasperating play. Sweet Storm takes place in Lithia Springs in 1960, and features just two characters: Bo, a young preacher, and Ruthie, his new bride. Bo and friends have recently built a treehouse for the couple, which Ruthie at first finds less appealing than the Clearwater motel she was expecting. Once Bo carries Ruthie into the treehouse, we see that she doesn't have the use of her legs; a moment later, Bo slides a bedpan under her so she can "wee," and we understand that Bo accepts Ruthie's disability as he does almost everything, with sincerity and devotion.
We learn a little more: the land on which the treehouse stands has been deeded to Bo by a certain Mr. Jenkins, and it's there that Bo intends to build a house and church. Further, there's a spring on the property which may have the power — or at least Bo says so — to heal Ruthie's legs. There's a little bit more action and a lot of talk — occasionally about stuff that shouldn't need retelling — and then there's that forward movement I mentioned. And the play ends. Just like that. Just when something was happening.
The acting is fine, avoiding the sentimentality that threatens the material from first moment to last. As Bo, Chris Jackson is earnest and enthusiastic, sure that the Lord has destined him for Ruthie, and so naïve that he speaks of his recent purchase of boxer shorts as if he were recounting an act of profound significance. As Ruthie, Heather Atkinson is poignantly unsure of her married life, frightened by the prospect of sex on her wedding night, and confused as to why Bo isn't put off by her disability.
James Rayfield's direction is skillful and intelligent, and Jake Kavanagh's set is so stunning, it takes a while before you realize that maybe it's just too impressive when a hurriedly-built, makeshift treehouse is what the script calls for.
An ostensibly important radio broadcast near the play's end doesn't, I think, have the importance that author Hudson wants, and as for that long tree branch with the word "Ebenezer" carved into it — meaning, we're told, "The Lord has helped me thus far" — it never really proves its relevance to the proceedings. Maybe in the phantom act two, both of these elements justify themselves.
Final evaluation: Yeah, traffic jams are a bitch.
But rides that only take you half the distance aren't much better.