What if you had done something not necessarily evil, but very disturbing? Enough to make you an outcast in society? Hot Steams explores the lives of two imprisoned men who are mentally brilliant but socially inept.
We first meet The Man Awake (played by Zach Wegner), who has been in his cell awhile, as he writes in chalk upon the floor, only to erase it, rewrite it … over and over again. On the other side of the cell is The Sleeping Man in a Santa suit, passed out with a pool of vomit beside him, which (according to Man Awake) is apparently from a night of heavy drinking by the smell of things.
When the Sleeping Man (Braeson Herold) finally awakes The Man Awake tells his story: The long-time prisoner has an obsession with collecting (and caring for) the skulls of the deceased, starting from when his parents had died. He was much young when they died, and with no one checking in on him, he was left to let them decompose for some time. Eventually the act of detaching, cleaning, and caring for his parents’ skulls gave him the sense of closure he hadn’t been able to get elsewhere. After that it became an obsession which haunted him — driving him to find more skulls to add to his collection which now reside in his suitcase.
A twist involving grave-robbing, an unsolved murder, and wrong-place-wrong time leads The Man Awake to be imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. This sets into motion one of the largest bits of dramatic tension in this play: did The Man Awake do something evil? Or just distasteful? And should we sympathize with him? Of course there is also the question of the other man being kept in his prison cell, but there is one more wrinkle to unfold.
We meet the Officer (played by Timothy Weinert) who (at times roughly) interrogates the formerly Sleeping Man and almost always is too personal as he works to find out what SM has learned about his cellmate, MA. But often it is just rhetoric which creates a narrative for the other prisoner rather than incriminating evidence. Weinert gives a very convincing performance as a brutish guard-cum-inquisitor who has all the power, but still has a shade of something else brewing beneath the surface which makes him lash out even more viciously when confronted with his lack of knowledge about the criminals under his “care”.
Immediately a feeling of “why” fills the room like a miasma which only gets thicker as time goes on. What playwright Zach Wegner does in Hot Steams is help us understand that sometimes a prison is often just the outward manifestation of the walls that can hold back people who are misunderstood by society. The fact that some of the thoughts that the characters have are disturbing only helps us remember a time when maybe we have harshly judged someone or been harshly judged, just for being different.
The set design is very basic- simply a door and then the stage itself outlined in various configurations. Books are in stacks and passed throughout the show. There is a box on one side and a chair which only shows up when illuminated by a single spotlight – representing the inquisition chamber where the second prisoner is questioned.
The writing (by Zachary Wegner) and direction (by Jaclyn Biskup) work hand in hand to create a well timed play that keeps you spellbound throughout. Numerous dramatic pauses and silences are exquisitely painful; this style of play is a treat for someone who likes to think and wants to see others doing the same. The costumes by Deirdre Wegner give a beautiful Noir flair, that helps suck you into this world.
Throughout the play, there are numerous literary references and other interesting and elaborate wordplay. From poetry by Yeats or William Blake, to the corny detective story of “Joey Tonsillitis, Private Dick”, many fun and beautiful words are worked into this piece. At times profound, at times laugh-out-loud gallows humor – even moments of subversive nonsense – the Man Awake shows us the appeal of living in a dream-world made of random books and paper. As he tells his favorite stories and ideas, he illuminates his view of the world as a lonely and often hostile place, one which doesn’t understand where he’s coming from. His hope of salvation from a pen pal of sorts, “Anita Kiss”, shows us in stages the depths of his misunderstanding of the world at large. Perhaps the prison is actually a good place of nurturing quiet contemplation, and his second cellmate provides more social interaction than he has had in years…
But what does the title mean? What are the Hot Steams that are behind the pressure cooker of this drama?
In part it may come from a southern folklore legend popularized by its mention in To Kill a Mockingbird, quoted toward the end of the play.
“What’s a Hot Steam?” asked Dill.
“Haven’t you ever walked along a lonesome road at night and passed by a hot place?” Jem asked Dill. “A Hot Steam’s somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too, an’ you’ll go around at night suckin’ people’s breath -”
Are one or more of the characters actual spirits, with the ability to inflict the type of damnation that is described above? As you watch, it seems that regardless of whether the supernatural is involved you definitely feel the seductive pull of Wegner’s words which make you want to understand – even empathize - with the three characters in this play who are all trapped by various layers of social restraint. Finally the simple and innocent prison of being different in the lonely world of The Man Awake makes him one of the strangest tragic heroes in a long time, with his prison of hope that grips him until the very end.
The biting social commentary of how the misunderstood are often imprisoned while the State works to find a charge that will keep them isolated from society is fit both within as well as inbetween the lines of this play. The fact that most in a similar situation such as this do not get the chance to tell their story makes the charity that this play supports, the Innocence Project very fitting. A small organization reviewing the many cases they receive each year of the often poor and forgotten by society, The Innnocence Project supports a limited number of cases who have used up all other legal avenues. Their hope is that DNA evidence could shed enough light on their case for an appeal for their innocence. Find out more here: http://www.innocenceproject.org/.
Hot Steams is a perfect example of classic absurdist theatre that I hope some day might become a classic itself. I certainly hope we get to see more of this play in the future.
Hot Steams played as part of 2012 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.