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'Pitbulls' Brings Dog-Fighting to Rattlestick

Adkins’ play tells the story of Mary and Dipper, outcasts from their rural dog-fighting town.

Photo by Monica Simoes

Pitbulls by Keith Joseph Adkins paints a portrait of a particular rural town in the Appalachians by depicting its outcasts--from a single mother morally opposed to the dog-fighting scene that energizes the town and her teenage son to an adulterous wandering priest and a sheriff who constantly intrudes on the life of the woman he once loved. It is set in the present day, but with its small town feeling and lack of most modern pieces of technology from computers to TV, it easily feels like it belongs 20-30 years in the past. In their world of poverty and lack of opportunity, Mary and Dipper are suspended in time.

Mary is the ultimate free spirit, living in a trailer in the woods, raising her son on her own and sustaining them both by selling wine that she makes herself. Stuck in a self-imposed exile, her only highlights are visits from her married lover, Wayne the traveling preacher, and her small acts of rebellion against the redneck, dog-fighting-obsessed community she left so long ago. But then Virgil, the sheriff she has a long, unspoken history with, starts poking around, and before long both of the prized pitbulls set for a huge 4th of July fight turn up dead, and Mary's son Dipper is the prime suspect.

This play is truly Mary's story, from her isolation and indoctrination of her son with her rebellious attitude to her romantic entanglements and constant grief for her stolen pit. Yvette Ganier is completely entrancing as Mary, her independence and lack of pretensions putting all of the men she interacts with under her spell. Maurice Williams as Dipper, meanwhile, provides a nuanced performance as an aimless young man struggling to formulate an identity for himself separate from his mother.

Billy Eugene Jones' Virgil is a fascinating character, a sheriff who is constantly attacking Mary and Dipper's way of life even as he watches out for the boy. Mary and Virgil's history is decades long, and the puzzle of their relationship only becomes more fascinating as the play progresses. Nathan Hinton's easygoing, philandering preacher Wayne adds another dimension to the story, of a religious and socially integrated figure who is nevertheless drawn to Mary's free lifestyle, and Donna Duplantier as Rhonda rounds out the cast as the wife who reels him back in.

Far more than a choice between two men, Mary's struggle encompasses the aimlessness and confusion after a lost love and the pain of losing a beloved pet. Pitbulls features an intense love of dogs without one ever actually showing up on stage, the barking echoing from the nearby town a reminder of the cruel society they left behind and the costs of dog-fighting. Meanwhile, as the priest and his wife's presence asks the audience, where can Mary find salvation if not in religion?

One of the most exciting features of Adkins' play is the set, a trailer surrounded with the detritus of rural poor living, from the broken outdoor washing machine to Mary's winemaking tools, that transforms in the second act into the town police station, a place of violence, love and memory all in one. The scene evokes both abject poverty and the beauty of nature--though the painted tree backdrop feels a bit out of place.

This play sizzles with tension, from the sexual to class prejudices and the power of not knowing what happened to Mary's pit back before Dipper was even born. The final confrontation between Mary and Virgil, when the whole story (or at least most of it) comes out, is the highlight of the play, and makes all of the mystery leading up to their showdown worthwhile.

Ultimately, Adkins and director Leah C. Gardiner have succeeded in creating a fascinating piece about a rural black community that is at the same time so much more than that. While true pitbull lovers may be put off by the violence in the play, Pitbulls is a fascinating show about what love and freedom mean in America today, and it's a story well worth seeing.

Pitbulls plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through December 13. For more information, check out their website.

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