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'C.O.A.L.' and Rewriting Our Own Truth

Confessions of a Liar brings a dark and cheeky story to 59E59.

Photos by Carol Rosegg

At first glance, C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar) by David Brian Colbert is cheeky, flippant and cynical—anything to push the audience away and keep them from connecting emotionally with the characters. But as the story progresses, the tale of a young boy learning to survive in a poor family in a small West Virginia town, we learn just how much of this attitude is an act, and how absolutely necessary it is. As we soon to come to realize, C.O.A.L. is not about the lies we tell others, but the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

The play consists of just four actors (a man, a woman, a boy and a girl), three chairs and a projected backdrop to portray a lifetime of events. The style is overtly presentational, with the actors speaking directly to the audience and relying on their feedback to continue, as scene by scene they construct the story of how protagonist Coal came to be the way he is. The four performers take on the various roles in his life as they appear--parents, teachers and peers—but they are also, in some way, all Coal himself.

Within each scene, Coal's thought process is fractured into multiple speakers, one doing the true dialogue while the rest of the actors banter with the audience, explaining the significance of each moment. And while this sharing of the main role is more effective at some times than others, such as when the older actors have to take on the persona of a six-year-old, what quickly becomes clear is how transient the identities we construct for ourselves truly are.

So what are these struggles Coal encounters that have turned him into the liar he is today? From the first grade teacher who calls him "welfare ghetto trash" to his alcoholic, physically abusive father and openly in denial mother, the precocious boy's enemies are largely adults, whose class prejudices and own inner demons slowly transform him into a glib character who is never allowed to show true emotion.

And then there's Mike Flowers, or Coach, the coach of the swim team who takes the neglected young boy under his wing and convinces him that he's special and worthy of attention...for a price. A price that continues on for a decade, until Coal fakes an injury to quit the team and gets too old for Coach to be interested in him anymore. And once you realize just how much he's been through, you suddenly understand how this person who cannot tell the truth about anything anymore came to be.

Lisa Bostnar and playwright David Brian Colbert portray these cruel older characters to perfection, painting fascinatingly complex portraits of child abusers and how they justify themselves to the world. Meanwhile, Mirirai Sithole and Jackson Tanner take on the younger roles, usually Coal, revealing a deep vulnerability beneath more layers of bravado than you can imagine. When our Coals collectively explain at the end why he can't tell the police what has happened to him, how his sense of self would be destroyed if the liar ceased to be who he is today, we believe them.

C.O.A.L. takes a little too long to get to the true story, dancing around the characterization of their stereotypical small town with its hit-or-miss West Virginia accents, but once the narrators stop trying to tell us how their town works and let us see for ourselves, it picks up considerably. From its scathing condemnation of Christianity to its property politics, Colbert's West Virginia is a much darker place than anyone will openly admit.

But most intriguing and most illuminating is how the play treats the abuse itself, from Coal's deliberate glossing over what actually happens between him and his swim coach to his attempts to get the audience to laugh at his being violently beaten by his father. When Coal survives his interrogation by the police, exonerating Coach Flowers from a fellow student's accusations, we are expected to see it as a triumph, a moment in which a boy no one else looks out for succeeds in surviving it all. But as the actors leave the stage at the end, the question is left unanswered for us to ponder long after the show is done: was it worth it?

C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar) plays at 59E59 through March 22.

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