Clark Gregg, Chris Bauer, and Mary McCann in The Night Heron(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Clark Gregg, Chris Bauer, and Mary McCann in The Night Heron
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Just before lighting designer Tyler Micoleau's muted hues rise on The Night Heron, sound designer Scott Myers follows playwright Jez Butterworth's first stage direction and runs a tape that's meant to conjure someone rapidly changing radio stations. During this sound bite, the words "St. John" go by quickly. Since the production has no show curtain -- few ever do at the Atlantic Company -- the audience has already been taking in Walt Spangler's eye-smacking representation of a tin-roofed shack sitting on metal stilts. Prominently placed upstage on the rough-hewn interior of this rickety structure is a wall hanging that depicts religious figures in black and white.

Anyone compelled to add up clues about a play before it gets underway could easily decide that Butterworth, whose feisty Mojo rocked these premises a few season back, plans to get some feisty, iconoclastic feelings about religion off his chest. Before much time has elapsed, the badgering dramatist confirms these suspicions. For one thing, he has a character identify the wall hanging as an "iconostasis." (According to Webster's New World Dictionary, this is "a partition or screen, decorated with icons, separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church.")

The symbols don't stop there; they keep coming at the audience like Dame Edna's gladioli. The action of the play takes place on England's Cambridgeshire fens, not far from Cambridge and Cambridge University's Corpus Christi College. (At one point in the dialogue, "Corpus Christi" is translated from the Latin for those unenlightened few who may not know what the words mean and would therefore miss their import.) There's talk of someone starting a religious cult and there are also a number of references to the eponymous night heron, which has been spotted in a nearby marsh and is talked about as presaging either good or evil. Most importantly, there's the focal character: Jess. Once an observer starts expecting barely hidden meanings in everything that's said and shown, the name seems unavoidably significant for being just one letter short of "Jesus."

Butterworth gives the impression that he's writing a new gospel according to a latter-day St. John, a gospel wherein a contemporary Jesus is sacrificed and too many poor sinners have lost the capacity to tell the difference between good and evil. Heavy-handed it may appear, and yet the surprising outcome of what could be a hopelessly clanging polemic is that Butterworth pulls off the reverberant enterprise. This accomplishment is akin to that of a magician who explains exactly how the trick he's executing works as he's working it yet still leaves the audience astonished.

The playwright's secret is in the off-the-beaten-track characters he creates and the ultimately heart-rending situation in which he places them. Jess Wattmore (Chris Bauer) is a gardener bounced from his job after being suspected of molesting a boy from the town. Suicidal and living in an isolated shanty, he sticks a rifle under his chin moments after entering; he's supported primarily by shackmate Griffin (Clark Gregg), who has quit his gardener's position to protest his friend's firing. Needing rent money, Jess and Griffin take in a boarder who gives her name as Bolla Fogg (Mary McCann in a radical mullet coif). Affectless yet apparently educated, she enters only seconds after a radio announcer has said of the night heron's visit, "No one knows why it has come."

Because Griffin has learned that a poetry contest is being held for which the prize will be one thousand pounds, he decides to enter the contest, though he doesn't know whether or not the lines he composes are any good. Thinking to help Griffin and Jess, Bolla contrives a scheme; unfortunately, it involves a Corpus Christi student (Joe Stipek) whom she carries off. Having done so, she plunges Jess into even more trouble than he's already got -- and that's only after she has issued a grotesque threat to Royce (Jordan Lage), another gardener and also a volunteer constable, who drops in to see Jess and Griffin. As Bolla verbally attacks Royce, the startled men can only watch her, their arms hanging slackly. They stand around even more ineffectually when an evangelical townsperson named Dougal Duggan (Jim Frangione) barges in with more accusations against Jess.

Chris Bauer and Clark Gregg in The Night Heron(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Chris Bauer and Clark Gregg in The Night Heron
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Oh, that disruptive Bolla! There's something Pinteresque about her interaction with Jess and Griffin; she's not unlike Davies in The Caretaker, who barrels through a door to charge the atmosphere with ambiguity. The uncertainty she introduces infuses Butterworth's play like a mysterious incense. Her motive in bringing the angelic boy into Jess's domain is questionable. She's like the night heron, who's a "harbinger," as the baffled Royce explains. It's the manner with which Butterworth's dangles the predicaments and possibilities of his figures that rivets our attention to them. (Another way to describe the emotional pull that Jess and Griffin exert is to liken them, respectively, to the slow-witted Lenny and the frustrated George in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.)

Neil Pepe may be taking chances in leaving Jess and Griffin standing around inertly, but with this and other deportment he has encouraged, he reflects the chances Butterworth has taken in his script. Pepe has goaded his actors to take chances, too, and they've obliged (with help on their Cambridgeshire accents from dialect coach Stephen Gabis). Chris Bauer as Jess -- who's black and blue from a beating at the hands of men convinced that he's taken advantage of a child -- has the wounded look of a man for whom external bruises are nothing compared to the psychic damage that's been done to him. Bauer is extremely good at protestations of innocence that slowly give way to an acceptance of an incomprehensible wrongdoing he can't reverse.

Clark Gregg does well by Griffin's determination to help his friend, particularly when it leads to winning a contest for which he has no talent. Mary McCann finds innumerable quirks for the enigmatic Bolla, who declaims almost everything as flatly as an autodidact giving a report on her summer vacation. At one point, Bolla gets out of her denims and into a go-to-town outfit (Laura Bauer designed the costumes astutely) that makes her into a sight gag; it's a show-stopping moment. Jordan Lage's unease yielding to muffled terror when Bolla assails him is perfect, and not at all unexpected from an actor who never lets the Atlantic Theater Company or its audience down. In brief turns, Jim Frangione as the trouble-making Dougal and Damian Young as yet another gardener acquit themselves well. As the kidnapped and drugged Cambridge boy, Joe Stipek -- nude until the curtain call -- conveys the required angelic innocence.

Whether or not the drama's Jess is a reference to Jez (as in Butterworth) is another ambiguous detail of The Night Heron. What's definitely not ambiguous is the playwright's skill in taking a number of unguaranteed elements and building them into a rock-solid drama.