Florida is not a state with a great literary tradition. The Southern lit writers — Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty — mostly gave it a pass. Playwright Andrew Rosendorf's Cane is an attempt to redress the state's literary lack, and it does so by reaching backward for old, old archetypes — positing the Lake Okeechobee of 1928 as a land out of the Old Testament. It's a place full of murder, revenge, savage seasons, and generational curses. It is also a land of scarcity. The first act's only moment of uninhibited joy comes when two characters bite into a banana. "The food of kings," says one, disbelievingly. A little later, a farmer says, "My feet got no shoes 'cuz they fall apart faster than I can buy new ones."
Cane is about Florida's early history, and never has this state seemed so tall. The dimensions of Florida Stage's new home in the Kravis Center work in the play's interest in ways no one could have predicted: The storms that whip across the set every half-hour (a fictional hurricane in 1928, a real one nearly a century later) seem to lap the set from the heavens, which themselves seem contained within the towering column of air above the stage. Cane takes place at the edge of a swamp, and the production feels like it's barely happening in a theater. It's more like downtown West Palm Beach has edged up to Okeechobee, or vice versa, and we are sitting in the place where the two worlds meet.
Cane is a time-traveling show. The first act takes place by the shores of Lake Okeechobee, beside an old and crumbling levee, in the front yard of a ramshackle grocery owned by Eddie Wilson (Gregg Weiner), a hard-working entrepreneur whose toils have made the swamp bloom. He lives surrounded by mud, but he is always tidy — the unblemished blue of his shirt and the crisp red of his suspenders bespeak a powerful will to escape the muck.
Down the road a ways is his unlucky neighbor, Noah Brooks (David Nail). He is filthy, his body wracked with syphilitic jitters. Noah needs money, and Eddie offers to buy his farm. The offer, and its apparent acceptance, sets the stage for a crime that will be committed late in the first act, which represents a kind of Floridian original sin.
The Biblical overtones of Rosendorf's script are most evident when the two men argue. Eddie speaks of his sacrifice and hardship beating back the brutal swamp and the swarms of mosquitoes, bringing forth unlikely green beans and cabbage from the land. Noah's sacrifices have been of a different order. He was a veteran of the Great War, harvesting not cabbage but bleeding Prussian meat. In the Bible, the son who sacrificed meat was the favored one; here, he is blasted, dirty, and forgotten. God's order is abandoned in the swamp. All the same, Noah, the play's disabled Abel, will meet the same fate as his biblical counterpart.
The second act takes place in the general present. Incredibly, this little patch of Florida beside Lake Okeechobee is basically unchanged. The grocery has a new façade, but the lot out front is as unpaved as ever. Eddie Wilson's great-great-grandson (Gregg Weiner again), despite being a millionaire many times over, still lives nearby. He has profited from his ancestor's ill-gotten gains, and now he means to make some of his own. The original Floridian gamble was agriculture — fields of sugar, which would be harvested for the rich and shifty as they buried the meek and mild. The new Floridian gamble is development. "Junior" Wilson has visions of concrete pavers in his eyes.
In the first act, the dynamic between Wilson and Brooks is as taut as piano wire, driving toward its violent conclusion with a kind of star-crossed inevitability. Weiner is expansive and elusive — a warm cloud of goodwill hovering about a cool and calculating core, the existence of which may be unknown even to his character. Nail, in one of the finest performances of the young theater season, imbues Noah with a beat-up dignity that is painful and ennobling to see. The men are surrounded by fully formed supporting characters: Dan Leonard plays an educated local do-gooder with an engaged crankiness that calls to mind both Mark Twain and Gladys Kravitz; Julie Rowe plays Wilson's hard-bitten wife as resolute but dreaming of a life with radio and culture and free of bugs; and Trenell Mooring, a great beauty, brings a silent survivor's intelligence to the character of the black farmhand, Harriett.
In the second act, the reappearance of these same actors as their previous characters' descendents seems contrived, like a grab for unnecessary symmetry. Their 21st-century incarnations spend most of the second act delivering monologues, none of which feel quite genuine and all of which are a little overcooked. Perhaps trying to link Florida's past with its present and future is a mistake — perhaps the divide between the two is too great and any equivalence is necessarily artificial. Whatever the reason, Cane could do with some trimming, lest this feast of biblio-Floridian archetypes devolve into mere crackers and cheese.