Betty, a Dean at a university, and English professor, has called her younger brother, Bobby, on a late, rainy night, to help her clear out belongings from a cabin in the woods. The frail, somber expression on Betty’s face as she listens to the radio (before Bobby’s arrival) makes it clear that she is in an isolated, painful place. Bobby is burly, blue-collared, earthy, but good-natured. He likes to taunt his older sister with the well-worn admonition : “The truth hurts,” a truism that goes curiously unchallenged. The truth certainly can hurt, but must it? As they begin to box up books and knick-knacks, Bobby suspects there is more going on than Betty is confiding. Unresolved animosity between the siblings begins to emerge, and Bobby exploits Betty’s urgent need for assistance to pump her for “the truth.” Such is the premise of In A Forest, Dark and Deep.
For the next 90 minutes (give or take) Bobby disparages, berates and diminishes Betty : “…just because you’re a Dean doesn’t erase your past…,” all in his selfless desire to help her face her transgressions, and, supposedly, redeem her soul. It might be easier to trust Bobby’s (and playwright Neil LaBute’s) motives if he weren’t denouncing Betty as a “whore” every five minutes. He confronts her with incidents from her teen years. Betty (according to him) thought she was better than everyone else, including her family, destroyed the career of her chemistry teacher, by seducing him, and was known far and wide for her willingness to perform degrading sex acts. Gradually we learn that she has been sharing the cabin as a “love nest” with an undergraduate who has mysteriously disappeared. She has a husband and children, and Bobby is not at all sure he wants to participate in this disgraceful charade.
It's not at all unusual for contemporary American playwrights to dissect the rage, frustration, confusion and devastation that comes with loving relationships between men and women. While LaBute briefly toys with the idea, the connection between Bobby and Betty is probably not incestuous. But it feels comparable to the pyrotechnics and savagery so often found in plays by Mamet, Rabe, Shepard, even Edward Albee, when friction between lovers is involved. While “couples” in these dramas are often at each other’s throats, there is tension and and conflict to propel them, and hold our attention. In Forest, we watch while Bobby lays into his sister, feebly contested, for most of the show, all in the name of familial devotion. A child of 10 could tell you that promiscuity comes from damaged self-esteem, that an evening of denunciation and invective is only going to drag Betty further into despair. But Bobby either lacks this insight or doesn’t care, despite his proclamations of “love.” Betty just barely fights back (consistent with self-loathing) which I suppose we’re to read as some kind of validation for Bobby’s repugnant behavior.
Throughout the course of the play, LaBute tries to establish Bobby as some kind of standard bearer for responsible, moral behavior. His marriages may not have been successful, but he never committed adultery. He believes in the respectability of manual labor (as opposed to academia) and the New Yorkers strewn across the coffee table make him wonder if Betty’s paramour is a “fag.” You could suggest that Bobby’s brutishness undermines the diatribe against a sister he’s supposedly devoted to. In other words : he embodies (and subsequently stands as condemnation of) the virulent misogyny endemic to American culture. But watching Forest, I just never got the impression that was LaBute’s intention. Regardless of Bobby’s personal moral code, men will always have more latitude when it comes to issues like indiscriminate sex. What we’re supposed to find compelling about a brother using temporary leverage to vilify his own flesh and blood, I really couldn't say. Perhaps it’s like The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps this exhibition of gratuitous hostility will incense us so thoroughly, it will function as a wake-up call. I’d like to think so.
Second Thought Theatre presents In a Forest, Dark and Deep, playing through August 31st, 2013. Bryant Hall at the Kalita Humphries Theater between Turtle Creek and Katy Trail, just off Blackburn. 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas, TX 75219 secondthoughtheatre.com 1-866-811-4111.