February 16 - March 17, 1996, The Road Theatre Company presented IDLE WHEELS at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood. Directed by veteran actor, Richard Herd, this play was written by James Morrison.

On rare occasions when he can slip away from the set of SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND, Morrison attends rehearsals of his play, IDLE WHEELS.

"On the surface, it’s about two families who have been friends for a long time. They live in a trailer court just outside Anchorage. They’re all transplants from other states. And they’ve been friends for years and years and years."

Morrison says the play, set in 1973, pays homage to his home state of Alaska. Central to his characters’ experiences is "the enormity of the place, the mysticism of the physical environment."

But more germaine than the Alaskan panorama is the cultural influence of that state’s native inhabitants, the Inuits, Morrison said. The play’s main character, Buzzy Greybill, becomes fascinated with these traditions and seeks to appropriate them as his own.

It is the conflict engendered by the young man’s adoption of these traditions vs. his failure to understand them that fuels the play’s dynamic.

Director Richard Herd adds, "The play is about a young man coming of age while living unhappily with his stepfather. This young man is placed in a situation in a trailer, a very confined area. This young man’s escape is through his fantasy, his dreams, his hopes, his spirituality which he picks up kind of catch-as-catch can, through certain native tradition in Alaska, and he gets lost in some of those."

Herd continues, "On his own, he leaves his dysfunctional home and hurls himself and fantasy and desire and gifts and talent into this spiritual situation. I understand people who are trying to transport themselves from desperate situations, situations with a great deal of anger and lust rather than love. People in Alaska are in a whole different era than we are. There is a whole different philosophy of the last frontier. There are different values. There are ‘manly’ things to do. Therefore everyone walks around with their own masks. It is difficult amongst men to show your true feelings. But every once in a while the real people break through trying to communicate. It is squashed because everybody wants to know how you are, but nobody really gives a damn. They don’t listen."

"In his case, he’s trying to possess something other than what he already does," Morrison said. "If you are trying to own something that you already possess, that’s insanity."

IDLE WHEELS made its way to The Road Company Theatre via Morrison’s association with the play’s director Richard Herd, who he met when they worked together at the Classical Theatre Lab in L.A. It was Morrison’s first play, written in 1984, but it has changed four times since then.

IDLE WHEELS received its first production in Salt Lake City in 1986. "I rewrote it from that, had a couple of readings since then to address problems I felt were exposed by the first production and did minor changes. After working a few years at Sundance I decided I would try my hand at it (writing), and I decided to write about people I knew and a place I knew. And at the time I was discovering a new spiritual foundation that I had discovered was missing from my life."

But he hid play away for years, realizing that he would never be able to act in it. "I wrote IDLE WHEELS with myself in mind, but I am too old for the role (of Buzzy). I have always played a little younger than myself. I started in 1983 -- then it was a project at the Sundance Institute in 1985. By that time I was already too old. I sat on the play from 1987 to ’92. I would sit and wonder, ‘Why aren’t people responding to my work as a writer?’ It occurred to me that it may be because no one was being exposed to it. So I started sending it out and now have quite a collection of rejection letters."

Then he decided it was time to look into a local production. When he showed it to his friend Richard Herd and received ecstatic feedback, he knew it was time. Herd would direct. "I knew he identified very strongly with the piece on several levels. Nothing beats that kind of enthusiasm."

But he still doesn’t think the play is perfect. "It is my first play, and I know what its flaws are."

"This is a love poem to the place I grew up. But because I was so confused and embittered and angry at the time that I grew up there, this is the perspective that I wrote from."

"I think it’s because it’s my first, and it will never ever really be finished. I just sort of have to stop, and let it be what it is."

"The tendency for writers who are living and come to rehearsal is for the actors to say, ‘I don’t understand this, I disagree and can you change it,’ rather than take the time, had the writer passed away, to discover it, to work on it. So I am not really interested in getting a call from Richard or the actors saying, ‘I want to argue with you about this.’ There is no argument. I am open to anything and will argue it passionately. I love philosophical discussions of all kinds. But the script is the thing. That is what I brought to this party."

"I have distanced myself. I talked to some of the actors, but I am not part of the process so much. It is theirs now. I have moved on and written several other plays since and am working on some now and doing other things. I trust Richard to guide this thing and realize this thing as if I were working by his side."

Under Herd’s careful direction a number of the actors give good performances. Laura Gardner is compelling as the battered housewife, Doris, mother to Buzzy, and Patrick James Clark is convincing as her ne’er-do-well husband and abuser, Pinky. Darlene Keagan is flawless as the girlfriend, Sherry. Betsey Burke, as Dodie, the flirtatious and vacuous neighbor, is also well cast.

Synopsized from reviews by T. S. Herrigan and Tom Provenzano for Drama-Logue and Deborah Klugman for L.A. Life Weekend.


"Within the first 20 minutes of 'Idle Wheels,' it's evident how the story will end. The time in between is well-spent, however, in the play's West Coast premiere, grippingly performed by The Road Theatre Company … it's the sort of stop-the-madness, social awareness theater that just might light a fire in your belly … Under Richard Herd's direction, the action surges and recedes in ever-greater waves of emotion, until the final, overwhelming one. It's all so realistic that viewers feel trapped in this situation - silent witnesses to a tragedy they know is coming and want desperately to prevent …Three Stars."

Sennett captures Buzzy's depressed, angry temperament, and Darlene Kegan is first-rate as the emotionally disturbed but slightly more grounded Sherry. Gardner is also terrific as the battered but unbowed Dorris, while Clarke is riveting as the drunken, crude and cowardly Pinky … Recommended."

Written by James Morrison and directed with ambitious, gritty vision by Richard Herd, 'Idle Wheels' is an intense, all too realistic portrayal of family dysfunction running rampant … it's actors were so skilled that I couldn't take my eyes away."

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