California, 1953. A little mystery, a little romance, a
little intrigue, a night at a dance hall, a house full of infidelity, and
those signature black-seamed stockings. Welcome to the backdrop of Charles
Willeford’s HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA. Welcome to an odd cast of
characters, who, paired with the obvious influence of film noir, make for a
very strange scene indeed.
In the opening moments of this play, we meet the
punch-drunk boxer, Blackie Victor (convincingly portrayed by James E.
Smith), as he watches television and spars with his past. Exit fallen star.
Enter unlikely couple number one, Alyce and Russell. Alyce at first seems a
spinster, but in short measure her adolescent marriage to the much older
Blackie is revealed. Having just met him at a dance hall, Alyce is being
courted by Russell, the puzzling used car salesman who seems to have set his
sights on her for the simple sake of winning. David Mogentale plays this
insipid character with such subtlety and implied treachery that his façade
of honesty is convincing. Really, a great performance, and one that helps
keep the script for HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA (adapted by the
novelist himself) from the murky waters it often treads on.
Unlikely couple number two, Ruthie and Stanley, is more
straightforward, but no less adulterous. Stanley is married, and paramour
Ruthie is his dying wife’s nurse. Next to Alyce’s developing situation,
theirs seems almost conventional, even for 1953. As HIGH PRIEST OF
CALIFORNIA progresses, it becomes a struggle for the dominance of Alyce.
Blackie has need, but the unscrupulous Russell has tenacity, and a lack of
the moral compass that would rein another man in. He plays dirty.
A moral quagmire of the kind found most often in fiction,
HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA is a dark, unlikely world that is
interesting to visit, but that I would not want to live in.
- Kessa De Santis -