Set amidst the working-class squalor of a nameless rural meat-packing community, Colin McKenna’s The Secret Agenda of Trees is a near perfect play for a collapsing masculinist culture based on boundless consumption. Put another way: it may not be the art we want, but it’s the art we need. Evading depressive abandon and recuperative sentimentalism, McKenna makes especially effective use of his scenario’s meat-packing analogies. These characters’ lives resemble a slow, steady progression towards certain annihilation, and their realizing this only makes things harder.
In director Michael Kimmel’s current production at The Wild Project, Secret Agenda gets a fitting if uneven treatment whose weaknesses are nearly cancelled by its outstanding lead. 14 year-old Veronica (Reyna de Courcy) lives alone with her mother Maggie (Lillian Wright) — after their brother/son Dixon has gone to and apparently died in Iraq — in the rickety house in the woods where the action is set. With her dreams of superstardom and epistolary interior monologues, Veronica is this play’s only means of escape. Accordingly, de Courcy carries the part with total abandon. Whether playing the bubbly, precocious kid, sexually curious teen or terrorized victim, de Courcy reaches a perfect balance that doesn’t treat youth like some precious, innocent flower to preserve at all costs.
This is a good thing, because Secret Agenda would be even more depressing (though less interesting) if its main character weren’t somewhat selfish and manipulative. By contrast, Maggie and her boyfriend Jack (Michael Tisdale) make the girl look like a saint. Addicted to meth pushed on them at the meat plant, incapable of taking care of themselves or Veronica, much less of improving their lot in life, they truly seem trapped by the trees of the play’s title. As Maggie, Wright never quite musters the chemistry that her interactions with de Courcy merit. As the nomadic Jack upsetting the household balance, Tisdale has a kind of casual charm that seems to only gently conceal an underbelly of anger. The moments when he erupts are truly terrifying. As Veronica’s boyfriend Carlos, Christian Navarro musters terrific energy and charisma to match de Courcy, and their scenes have all the thrill and uncertain excitement of middle school love.
This production’s main flaws appear in its second half, where a series of short scenes likely designed to build momentum have the opposite effect. In this start-and-stop environment, acting suffers, lines get dropped and what could have been two or three longer scenes wind up a jarring marathon of snippets. Still, generally solid performances (outstanding in de Courcy’s case), clever sound, set and lighting design, and a terrific play make this production well worthwhile. Like a steak from the plant where Jack and Maggie work, it may not be the most appetizing thing on the cultural menu, but Secret Agenda is full of healthy things for a malnourished culture.