“The Coward” — The Bard’s Town Theatre’s latest production — paints a difficult divide between father and son while echoing today’s politically stratified environment. The award-winning 2010 play by Alaskan playwright and “Orange Is the New Black” writer Nick Jones is a period piece set in the 1800s. It focuses on the violent pastime that was all the rage in the upper crust of society back then — dueling.
Director Amos Dreisbach spoke with Insider about the play, its cast and why violence and class tension are so enjoyable on stage, as well as what it’s like to work on a dark comedy with so many characters.
“It’s a father-son story with a bunch of shenanigans,” says Dreisbach.
He also says it’s unpredictable, which he claims is a rare thing in a comedy. That unpredictability is why the director, a graduate of the University of Louisville’s theater program, decided to work on this show. He chose the script from several Bard’s Town artistic director Doug Schutte gave him to read.
“He gets sent a bunch of scripts and he sends them out to a couple of us who get to read them and help choose them,” says Dreisbach. “The second act of the show goes to places where no one coming to the theater to see the show will know where this play is going.”
Though the comedy drives the action, the heart of the play is the father-son relationship at its core.
“It’s about this family, specifically the father. He is a part of parliament; he’s an upper-class gentlemen, and his youngest son, his only remaining son, his name is Lucidus,” explains Dreisbach.
Because Lucidus Culling is the only remaining scion of his house, his actions are closely scrutinized by Nathanial Culling. And the senior Culling is not happy with what he sees.
“He doesn’t think Lucidus is a man,” the director says. “He is incapable of the family name because he is seen as weak because he’s a studious fellow — he likes the arts, he likes the sciences, and this comes in a period where … we’re more focused on brute strength.”
You may guess from the title, but much of the senior Culling’s displeasure comes from the way his son reacts to violence — Lucidus is the eponymous coward.
“The crux of the show comes when (Lucidus) has to challenge a member of society to fight to prove the family name,” says Dreisbach.
The act of dueling is central to the action of the play, and Dreisbach says that despite the show being a comedy, there are moments of violence meant to shock. “All the violence is barbaric, and it’s gross. We wanna juxtapose the ideas of high society versus their romantic view of violence.”
This is Dreisbach’s first time directing a full-length period piece. He says many of the play’s ideas — how we value violence and how more conservative ideas bump up against more liberal ideas — are relevant today.
“This father has these views like your modern conservative family, and Lucidus sticks out,” he says. “It’s … almost a perfect show for what’s going on in society right now — that there’s this divide between the left and the right, and there isn’t much in the middle.”
For Dreisbach, the play’s themes of estrangement between father and son have personal relevance.
“As someone who doesn’t really have a relationship with his birth father … having a young male protagonist who has problems with is father was very relatable.”
To embody Lucidus, Dreisbach cast actor, teacher and director Ben Park. It’s a reunion for the two, who worked last season on “In a Word,” another Bard’s Town show that received rave reviews. Park also was featured in the Walden Alumni company’s production of “The Aliens,” one of the best shows of the last couple of years in Louisville’s independent theater scene.
Nathanial Culling is played by Sean Childress, another well-regarded veteran of the scene.
Despite the play’s focus on its lead characters, the eight-person cast is uncommonly large for the Bard’s Town stage, which seems to frequently feature shows more likely to have three to six actors. That may have to do with a high death toll among the characters, something Dreisbach alludes to when discussing the onstage violence.
“There are these really serious beats of the play taking a breath and saying, ‘Holy shit, what did we just watch?’ We watched two people we kind of like just murder each other — for what reason?”
You’ll have to go see “The Coward” to find out if it offers any answers. The show runs May 19-June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at The Bard’s Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door.