When the lights go up on the evocative wood cabin interior that serves as the setting of Daniel Newton’s THE RANGERS, the appearance of a scraggly-bearded, unshowered figure in a red undershirt and suspenders may have you thinking you’ve wandered into a fever dream starring Lee Marvin. If you’re expecting this particular recluse to break into a rousing chorus about gold dust, however, you’d be severely mistaken.
In this dark three-hander, Zakes (Aidan Scott) and Charlie (Lyle October) find themselves in the Canadian wilderness in search of Zakes’s older brother Desmond (Nicholas Pauling). Patrick Curtis’ design immediately cements the play in its distant northern reality, and the abrupt entrance of two freezing South Africans bickering about how they’ve ended up in this position serves as a compelling starting point to the psychodrama about to play out.
When the brothers meet for the first time in ten years, the reunion isn’t exactly a happy one. The well-meaning Charlie does his best to initiate an honest conversation, but his attempts are met with increasingly aggressive opposition to any kind of dissection of the past.
It becomes clear very early on that Desmond was driven halfway across the world after suffering something unspeakable—something so unspeakable, in fact, that no one’s actually allowed to let the audience in on the secret at any point. A piercing comment on the nature of festering family secrets? Perhaps, but which end of the cult spectrum are we talking: Devilsdorp or just some light namaslaying? Desmond lets his brother in on a recurring revenge dream starring Meryl Streep as an avenging angel, but that’s about as much as he’s willing to divulge about his efforts at coming to terms with his psychic wound.
Pauling’s engrossing as the grizzled Desmond, and Scott and October find a very pleasing rhythm to their quickfire verbal sparring. (If you like witty repartee and deadpan delivery, that’s where this play truly excels, so don’t miss this one.)
The play’s populated with all the overt trappings of masculinity as defence mechanism: a remote cabin in the woods, competitive non-veganism, a hunting rifle on the wall, Olympic-level drinking, and repressed childhood trauma. It's a picture that could leave the audience with some uncomfortable questions regarding the unshakeable grip severe trauma has on this country and the possibility that we’re exporting our particular brand of violence and dysfunction to even the remotest corners of the world.
However, the play’s apparent reluctance to explore trauma more explicitly rooted in a South African reality in favour of a less specific spiral into chaos feels like a missed opportunity to encourage deeper reflection. One gets the feeling the show would have benefitted from a longer running time—65 minutes feels like too short a time in which to get to know these complex characters and appreciate how they’ve got to where they are. Still, THE RANGERS is a fast-paced, well-executed reminder that you can’t outrun your past. No matter how far you’re willing to go; your annoying little brother’s always going to find you and drag you right back to where you started.
The Falstaff Play Co. presented THE RANGERS is on at The Baxter Theatre Centre’s Masambe Theatre until 1 April 2023. Tickets are R150 and available online through Webtickets. Block booking, student, and pensioner discounts are available.