You couldn't live in or around Deerfield Beach in the fall of 2009 without hearing about the horrific attack on 15-year-old Michael Brewer. The middle-school student was allegedly doused in rubbing alcohol and set ablaze by four of his classmates, reportedly because of an unpaid loan for a $40 videogame. Brewer suffered burns on 80 percent of his body, and the story became a media circus, for better (the coverage led to many poignant fundraisers for Brewer) and worse (as usual, the media undermined due process by trying the quartet of juveniles on television).
Plantation's American Heritage Center for the Arts decided to revisit the Brewer case by commissioning a work about it for its resident theater, Mosaic. The result is A Measure of Cruelty, the first world premiere in Mosaic's 11-year history. It's written by New York-based Joe Calarco, whose geographic distance from the emotional story lends it the intellectual detachment it needs. The location remains Deerfield Beach, and Calarco references local events, but the play could have been set in any community that suffered a tragedy like this one. It's a transcendent piece of theater, and I feel humbled and honored to have experienced it.
A Measure of Cruelty takes place in a sleepy neighborhood watering hole, evoked with nuance and vivid detail by set designer Douglas Grinn. Todd Allen Durkin plays Buddy, an embittered Iraq War veteran who runs the bar. For reasons initially unknown, he has been offering safe haven for Derek (Andrew Wind), one of Michael Brewer's assailants, who managed to escape capture (this part of the story, like the character of Derek, is fiction from Calarco). Buddy has restricted him to the bar's dank backroom, keeping him shuttered away like a prisoner. When Buddy finally lets him sit at the bar, Derek won't shut up, sounding off about fracking, the war in Afghanistan, and an impending environmental apocalypse like a half-crazed, half-correct prophet. Wind is outstanding, switching from urban slang to geopolitical analysis with the speed, style, and delivery of a slam poet. The world is always his stage, and he never misses a cue; he almost makes us like the guy.
Soon, Buddy's father, Teddy (Dennis Creaghan), enters the scene, prompting Derek to disappear into the bowels of the bar. Teddy is disheveled, loudmouthed, and funnier than he probably realizes. But he's also hypercritical of his son, who constantly apologizes to his dad, hanging his head like a dog that was discovered with the cookie jar. For most of the play, Creaghan is inherently charming in a role that could have easily fostered curmudgeonly scowling. But eventually, his negative baiting gets Buddy's goat, and there's no turning back.
It soon becomes apparent that A Measure of Cruelty isn't so much about the Michael Brewer case or the hot-button issue of teen bullying. It's about the fraught relationship between tyrannical fathers and cowering sons — the thematic soil tilled so expertly by Arthur Miller over much of his oeuvre. This is the tissue that connects the lost boys Buddy and Derek, prompting a jaded patriot to shelter an admitted criminal. In one of his stronger moments, Buddy disregards Derek's attempt to shuffle blame to his bigoted father, retorting with, "I don't care if Adolf Hitler spilled you out of his dick."
This is hardly the case, which brings us to Durkin's complex and bravura performance. With memories of a family trauma muddling in his brain with his recent tour of duty, Buddy is a limping patchwork of emotional shrapnel — a man with wounds the length of his body and the circumference of his soul. Esoteric stimuli trigger PTSD explosions, and when they arrive, they're both spontaneous and inevitable. Durkin inhabits this bruised character with a possessed ferocity, wrecking havoc on his bar in a way that is breathless, corporeal, and terrifying. With his muss of tousled hair and clothing drenched in an acrid mixture of sweat, tears, and vodka, it's an uninhibited performance of complete commitment.
The sequence adds another stratum to this five-layer dip of a play: namely, the way soldiers are trained to be heartless killing machines, fueled by dehumanization and lacking any shred of empathy. Is what Buddy did over there — torturing Iraqi civilians and pissing on their corpses — any better than what those boys did to poor Michael Brewer? In Matt Corey's exceptional sound design, the machine-gun fire and grenade explosions resounding in Buddy's head segue into the horrific 911 call about the torching of Michael, a sobering reminder that terror is terror, no matter where it's coming from.