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Photograph: Johnny KnightPrinces of Waco at Signal Ensemble Theatre

Princes of Waco at Signal Ensemble Theatre | Theater review

True grit chafes against flights of fancy in Robert Askins’s modern Western.


Behind a Baby Gap in Waco, Texas, there’s a bar with no one behind the counter and the same three patrons over the course of years. It’s one of those convenient theater settings that exists in a world apart, a world of coincidence and implausibility where anything can happen—such as a love triangle among an aging outlaw, a teenage rebel and a 17-year-old church girl.

Robert Askins’s 2010 drama strives for gritty realism in its depiction of tortured souls in the Deep South, but the script’s rapid leaps diminish the integrity of the circumstances and characters. Running away from his father’s funeral, Jim (Rob Fenton) meets cowboy Fritz (Joseph Stearns), who quickly makes him an accessory to robbery, then turns him in to the police so he can steal his jailbait girlfriend, Esme (Carolyn Braver). Following a two-year jump between acts, Fritz and Esme are a couple; why Esme falls for the deadbeat is never adequately explained, and skipping over that crucial span makes their relationship feel flimsy.

Esme and Jim have a stronger connection, with their brief early scenes capturing the intimacy that Act II lacks. Much of this is due to Fenton’s charming naïveté, later replaced by intense determination as Jim makes a chilling post-prison transformation. Fenton’s varied, engrossing performance keeps Jim grounded even as the script takes increasingly questionable turns.

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