“Everyone deserves to know who they are,” exclaims Grey Rhodes, the protagonist of a powerful new drama making its West Coast premiere at Cottage Theatre. Knowing who we are, and where we come from, is one of humanity’s fundamental desires.
Seeking Red, which opened June 10 at the newly remodeled community theater in Cottage Grove, explores the power of that fascination through a story inspired by a real-life tabloid tale: What happens when a young woman discovers she has never known the truth about her late mother’s life and death?
When the lights come up we meet Grey (Darcy Rust), who is in the process of moving out of the home of her sharply witty, utterly gay Uncle Ty (Tony Rust), who has raised her alone since her mother was struck and killed by a semi-truck years before. At least that’s the story she has always been told about her mother.
But when Grey gets an internship as a researcher at The Seattle Times, she discovers that there was never a newspaper story or obituary marking her mother’s death.
Back home with Uncle Ty, she begins pestering him with questions, much to his irritation. “I don’t like the questions!” he snaps when she accuses him of being evasive.
Grey begins to learn more when she and Times reporter Emily Ambrose (Janet Rust) interview Cecil (played eloquently by Joshua Carlton), a tough but slightly disoriented man who has just been released from prison, thanks to the Innocence Project, after serving 15 years for supposedly murdering his two sisters. New technology showed that the murders were actually committed by a local serial killer, already in prison, and he confessed.
As the two women work on their story, Grey meets a police detective (Blake Nelson) specializing in cold case investigations, and her own life is slowly but inevitably upturned as she slowly unravels the truth about her mother.
Seeking Red is a family affair backstage. It was written by Glenn Rust, the 24-year-old son of Tony and Janet Rust and older brother of Darcy Rust. The premiere at Cottage Theatre is via the National New Play Network, which brings new work to regional stages around the country. The show was originally scheduled to run here in 2020, but was postponed by the pandemic.
Rust based his story on a memoir by Kelly Grey Carlisle, who learned at age 8 her parents were not, in fact, killed in a car crash shortly after her birth.
(A strange coincidence: While a newspaper reporter 40 years ago in Southern California, I became friends with the Los Angeles homicide detective who investigated the real-life murder that inspired this play, and who rescued Carlisle, abandoned as an infant in a flophouse hotel, after her mother’s death.)
Darcy and Janet Rust are solid in their roles as Grey and the tough-love newspaper reporter who oversees her research. Tony Rust puts in a fine, occasionally hilarious performance as Uncle Ty and a spectacular one as David Ragan, a psychopathic serial killer whom Grey interviews in prison when she completely abandons journalism to pursue her personal quest for knowledge.
Director Kory Weimer opens the story with a sometimes comic but increasingly moody first act, slowing down the action with repeated pauses in the dialogue to good effect, and upping the pace as the story develops. The entire play is staged on a spare set, designed by Tony Rust, that reminds me of the abstract gray sets that were popular for deep, existential dramas in the 1960s.
Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines origins, Seeking Red is far more than melodrama. The two-hour show takes us along on a quest for personal knowledge that, among other things, explores the idea that there really are things we might not want to know about our ancestors.
Seeking Red continues through June 26 at Cottage Theatre, 700 Village Drive, Cottage Grove. Tickets and more info at CottageTheatre.org.