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With its baroque structuring, its large stable of characters, and its fluid treatment of time, this is one difficult play to direct. Scenes intersect, lines repeat, interrupt, and the audience's focus needs to dance carefully from moment to moment. Director Bo Crowell is to be lauded for attempting to place order on what could very easily be utter chaos. Yet ambition tends to work better when buttressed by ingenuity. For the most part, Crowell has chosen to freeze a cast of 17 characters stone still on a tiny stage, perhaps to complement playwright Lanford Wilson's cramped, static town, and to emphasize the play's choral, fugue-like elements. Yet the tableau is so crowded, the stage so painfully small, and what little movement he's created feels haphazard and messy. It's a shame, as the piece is expertly cast, very competently performed, and while it may not be Wilson's most subtle or perceptive work, it has some brutal points to make about small-town hypocrisies and perversions.

Built on coal with coal money, Eldritch is a town in moral and physical decay. The miners have "raped the land and moved away" and what's left is a ghostly, oppressive place, population 70, where there's not much to do besides bitch, dream, go to church, wander around in the woods, and engage in petty rivalries. A murder has taken place in Eldritch, and over the course of the play the entire town is implicated. There are the Windrods, a feeble mother (the gifted Sara Shearer) and her abusive daughter (a shrewish Kelly Bailey), the mild mannered Johnsons (the comical duo of Joe Corrigan and Lacey Beers) with their trampy daughter Patsy (a sassy Michelle Carr), and the Jacksons, a homely, God-fearing mother and her crippled young child, Eva (Dawn Worrall), who spends her days musing in the forest with a troubled older boy, Robert (Danny Devereaux).

It's a twisted little town recognizable from the pages of Flannery O'Connor. There's the preacher (John Ross Clark), the town gossips (Cate Rachford and Suzy Vaughan), the lonely shop owner (Claire Dunlap) who's shacking up with the obligatory handsome stranger (Stan Weightman Jr.) from out of town, and, of course, a crazy old man whom no one understands, or wants to understand, given a layered performance by John Szura. The old man sees things—everything, in fact. He's like a homeless voyeur who knows everyone's perversions and isn't afraid to bark them out to passersby.

While the play's structure is complex, its themes are not. In fact, the poetic use of repetition allows Wilson to make his points over and over again. Crowell nevertheless chooses to stress them even more rather than add emotional layering of his own. His simple set is a perfect example. Wooden banisters indicate a small town courtroom, because, as the play tells us over and over again, the whole town is on trial for the murder that's taken place. Some white dots are painted on the walls and backdrop. It's rime, the titular hoarfrost that blankets this town every winter, blinding its people to their shortcomings—blindness being a central metaphor here—and covering the tragedies of the past.

"The Rimers of Eldritch," presented by and at the Jewel Box Theatre Center, 1951-1959 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Apr. 20-May 26. $15. (323) 469-4434.

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