The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek

Ground UP Productions

Closed Jan. 14

Without doubt, there are haunted places in this world. But playwright Naomi Wallace reminds us that hauntings are ultimately very individual affairs.

Though a train bridge just outside of Louisville, Ky., has long been the focus of a particular urban legend, the grotesques we observe in Wallace’s Trestle at Pope Lick Creek aren’t outlandish monsters of unknown origin, but ordinary individuals, families and two teenagers whose spirits have been all but crushed by the Great Depression.

Still, for at least one longtime theatergoer, Friday night’s opening of Ground UP Productions’ Trestle evoked haunted sites considerably closer to home. It’s strangely fitting that a work looking back to the devastating effects of humbler times found a resting place last week in the humblest and smallest of student theater venues within a 50-mile radius of Chapel Hill. For once, rooms like Bingham 203, the black box theater where this show was produced, and what was then a dingy basement in Graham Memorial Building where UNC’s Lab! Theatre was housed until the 1990s, were the only venues open to undergraduate actors on campus, regardless of their gifts.

As memory serves, the two institutions operated primarily on benign neglect and temporarily pilfered tech, props and costumes. True, both rooms saw their full measure of theatrical miscalculations. But at their best, both were also monuments to what hungry artists, driven to create, could achieve with inadequate time, no sleep, two-figure budgets, strategic overdosages of caffeine, crumbling infrastructure and limited departmental support. Significantly, both rooms also taught their audiences and artists the primacy of what Carmen-Maria Mandley appropriately calls bare theater: acting and direction in depth, with no frills and high integrity, at point-blank range.

The echoes of past shoestring productions were already in place before we learned, in a post-show talkback, that what we’d just seen was the result of eight after-hours rehearsals in borrowed rooms by a group of advanced undergraduates who were wrapping up a semester-long field research seminar in New York. Student producer Meredith Dixon cheerfully admitted, “We had no money, no rehearsal space, no performance space…. We just decided that we had to try it.”

Members of Ground UP, a group of UNC expatriates who’d been producing theater in New York, had been mentoring the students after the company’s triumphant regional premiere here in August: a showing of Jane Martin’s Jack and Jill that made our shortlist of best shows of the season. The students approached Ground UP director Kate Middleton with their crazy plan. Luckily for them, and us, she said yes.

It’s the acting and the direction of this production that will haunt me the longest. The wilting after a punishingly long droughtand the carefully conserved energy required to outlast itwas palpable in Emily Anderson’s achievement as Gin, the fading wife and mother who still has some fight left in her. But the center of this production was Jaki Bradley’s Pace. Middleton and Bradley created a fierce teenage girl who adamantly rejects the hopelessness in her family and her town. At the same time, Pace craves complete communion, beyond sex, with a soul mate who’s as uncompromisingand as willing to test him or herself against the fear that has overcome everyone else, by running across a sideless bridge toward a 153-ton steel locomotive.

As her prospective companion, Dalton, Shane Zeigler is a man-child, bewildered but attracted by her challenges. Ryan Tumulty found most of the rough edges, and chilled our blood on at least two occasions, as Chas, a jailer intent on figuring out exactly whatnot whohis captives are. Matthew Baldiga’s tentative reading made Dray, Gin’s husband, one of the hollow men eviscerated by one thing: an economic downturn in a time before our own.

The cast’s achievementafter eight rehearsals and a tech-inleaves us wondering what this show could have achieved with a full production cycle. If an uncredited set design (including an unsafe-looking bridge, anchored by old rope and eyehooks) ate up too much of an already small stage, both it and the room also reinforced the soul-stifling claustrophobia of Wallace’s small town.

With work this sophisticated coming out of considerably less, we consider any lingering argument against the full support of advanced undergraduate acting effectively closed.