Tom O'Keefe, Johnny Pruitt, and Ryan Templeton
in A Hard Wall At High Speed
(© Jen Maufrais Kelly)
Tom O'Keefe, Johnny Pruitt, and Ryan Templeton
in A Hard Wall At High Speed
(© Jen Maufrais Kelly)
One man's fatal mistake has far-reaching consequences in Ashlin Halfnight's thoughtful and stirring A Hard Wall at High Speed, now making its world premiere at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, directed by May Adrales.

Set in and around 2001, the work centers on Donnie (Tom O'Keefe), a flight instructor who lives and works in the Florida Keys. The play's early scenes establish Donnie's hopes and dreams for owning his own business, as well as his relationships with his pregnant wife, June (Sarah Kate Jackson), younger brother Trout (Johnny Pruitt), and Trout's live-in girlfriend, Marcy (Ryan Templeton).

There's a comic flair to these interactions that nevertheless show the deep and affectionate bonds that Donnie has with these people in his life, as well as the small cracks that will grow wider as the play progresses.

While the show may first come across as a domestic comedy, Halfnight pulls the rug out from under the audience as the characters' lives change drastically following the terrorist attacks of September 11. There are still comic moments and some bitingly funny dialogue, but the play makes a swift -- and effective -- tonal shift that has a darker, more dramatic quality.

Donnie's life quickly spirals out of control as business dries up, partly because of a general fear of flying in the wake of the attacks, but mostly due to a misjudgment on Donnie's part that is tied directly into the tragedy. Not only is his career put at risk, but he also faces public ridicule in the media, as well as hatred and resentment from both strangers and people he's known all his life. Furthermore, his tenuous employment situation puts a strain on his marriage, as he and June now have a newborn baby boy and less and less money.

O'Keefe delivers a moving and layered performance, perfectly capturing Donnie's growing sense of despair, mixed with anger, resignation, and guilt. Jackson pushes a little too hard in the play's early scenes, but does a bang-up job later in the play as June struggles to control her own anger and frustration with her husband.

Pruitt does well in his comic scenes, but tends to play the dramatic ones mostly on the surface. Templeton is delightful as Marcy, bringing a quirky sensibility to the role that is at once mischievous, sexy, and open-heartedly sincere.

There have been many plays that have dealt with the events surrounding September 11, 2001 and yet, Halfnight manages to offer a fresh perspective that avoids easy answers. He instead focuses on the fear and insecurity that accompanies a fall from grace, and the difficult and seemingly impossible task of finding some way to rebuild.