We are seated in the Milton Community Center witnessing the making of a documentary. Ten years ago, this small Nebraska town was rocked when the title character of Bobbie Clearly shot and killed Casey Welsh when she was 16 and he 14. For nearly 2 1/2 hours, we will hear from Bobbie and ten others about what led up to that horrific event and beyond it to present day. It will be as hard to see the next turn in their stories as it is to navigate the tall fields of corn where Casey’s body was found.
Avoiding the pitfalls of some of the seasons other issues-oriented productions, Bobbie Clearly focuses on the violent act’s human impact rather than on the shooting itself. Playwright Alex Lubischer has generously peppered his moving script with moments of humor, taking care to treat his characters with affection even when poking fun. Though primarily delivered in interview format (to an unseen host), the relationships sparkle. There are times when two people are telling separate segments using identical phrases, shining a light on the importance of context. Lubischer also captures a common progression of high school friendships, following four of Bobbie’s classmates from their summer jobs corn detasseling through their awkward fundraisers in Casey’s memory. Further, there is a profound exploration of the link between religion and forgiveness. Most importantly in this delicate time, Lubischer is careful not to take a stand on guns by making Casey’s father, Stanley, take delight in hunting as a distraction from his grief.
The entire cast is terrific, beginning with Ethan Dubin who — though used sparingly — manages to be both sweet and disturbing as Bobbie. Many will recognize the magnificent Constance Shulman from her equally wonderful ensemble work in television including Orange is the New Black. With her tiny wiry frame and high-pitched croak, she makes an unusual police officer, which is perfect given the unconventional bond she develops with Bobbie from the time he was the Sunday school bully to the day he makes his best attempt at repairing the huge hole he has ripped in his community. Her intensity is balanced by the performance of JD Taylor as Bobbie’s misguided and slightly goofy Big Brother Derek Nelson. As BF(F?)s and mismatched bookends Megan and Meghan, Talene Monahon and Sasha Diamond play off each other with great timing. And Tyler Lea taps into both vulnerability and inner strength as Casey’s younger brother, Eddie, the only witness to the murder.
The piece is performed in 3/4 round with what are essentially service doors to the space serving as entrances and exits. As directed by Will Davis, the energy flows consistently even through the silences. He may also be responsible for the brilliant choreography of two critical dance numbers, which call for very special talent. Kudos to Asta Bennie Hostetter for finding such great costumes-on-a-budget for those numbers as well as the more everyday items that fill in character details. Providing unsettling atmosphere are the smothering walls of dried corn that almost exclusively comprise the minimal set by Arnulfo Maldonado.
At $25 a ticket, Bobbie Clearly is superb bang for the theatrical experience buck. The play is presented as part of Roundabout Underground at The Black Box Theatre and is sure to keep developing its strengths. If you are looking for a who dunnit or even a why, look elsewhere. However, this slow-burn storytelling and honest examination of what is ultimately unknowable will leave you with your thoughts turning. For tickets, on sale through May 6, 2018, and information visit https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bobbie-Clearly.aspx.