You’ll want to linger at Rep’s ‘Yankee Tavern’

By Mike Fischer, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Jan. 9, 2010
Playwright Steven Dietz writes a lot about obsession or betrayal, and his brainy plots exhibit a love for puzzles. It was therefore only a matter of time before he combined all three by writing a play about conspiracy theories.
That play is “Yankee Tavern,” which is receiving a spellbinding production on the main stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Dietz’s play is set in 2006 in the Yankee Tavern, a crumbling bar located near ground zero. Steve and Susannah Barnes’ evocative set is a stand-alone structure stuffed with memorabilia – embodying an America stuck in the past and increasingly isolated from the world.
Adam inherited the bar after his father’s mysterious death. His exit strategy involves finishing his graduate degree and marrying his fiancée, Janet.
In the meantime, Adam puts up with Yankee regular Ray, an irascible crank convinced that everything from the moon landing to the attack on the World Trade Center was staged.
Supported by a mysterious tavern newcomer named Palmer, Ray is increasingly credible as the play progresses – less because of his actual theories than because of the secretive culture that spawns them.
For Yankee Tavern is rotten with secrets, ranging from what the government conceals from us to what Adam and Janet hide from each other. When nobody is telling the truth and everyone has something to hide, it becomes impossible to know who or what to believe.
Credit Dietz with challenging the audience to figure this out for itself. Credit director Sean Graney and an excellent Rep cast for revealing the psychic cost of holding onto stories that we know deep down aren’t true.
On the surface, Brian Vaughn’s Adam exudes boyish charm, while simultaneously displaying an edgy side that betrays Adam’s rage at a world that isn’t nearly as simple as he wants it to be.
Marti Gobel’s Janet moves with a controlled rigidity that captures the futility of her efforts to pretend Adam is fine – as well as her lonely struggle to keep her own secrets under wraps.
Will Zahrn finds the warm and earnest center driving Ray’s insistent urge on getting the story straight. Torrey Hanson’s haunting Palmer is Ray’s dark double, a shell of a man who is still being consumed by the flames that brought the towers down.