THE NIGHT HANK WILLIAMS DIED Play by Larry L. King. Directed by Christopher Ashley. THURMOND STOTTLE pumps gas at the Gulf station in the fictional west Texas town of Stanley. But the one-time high school football hero yearns for the fame and glamour of stars like the country-western singer whose sudden death inspired the title of Larry L. King's wistful yet mordant folk play at the WPA Theatre. While ``The Night Hank Williams Died'' returns to rural America of 1952, its theme of daydreams versus harsh realities is timeless.
Thurmond (Matt Mulhern) whiles away his idle hours drinking and fantasizing at the Sundowner Recreational Club, a local bar and pool parlor. Proprietor Gus Gilbert (Barton Heyman) takes a shrewdly realistic view of Thurmond's success fantasies. When Nellie Bess Powers Clark (Betsy Aidem), Thurmond's ex-sweetheart now on the brink of a marriage breakup, returns to Stanley, Mr. King adds the complication that presages the play's shattering denouement.
Best known in theater circles as the co-author of the musical ``The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,'' Mr. King proves again his powers as an acute observer of Americana, west Texas style, with special attention to comic hyperbole and earthy colloquialisms. The characters are vividly drawn and convincingly realized in the production staged by Christopher Ashley.
Besides the strong performances in the three central roles, the acting level is well sustained by Phyllis Somerville as Nellie Bess's fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist mother, Steve Rankin as a bad-guy sheriff, and J.R. Home as a local reprobate. In addition to country-and-western recordings and several King tunes, the folkways regionalism of the piece is enhanced by the designers: Edward T. Gianfrancesco (setting), Craig Evans (lighting), and Jess Goldstein (costumes). ``The Night Hank Williams Died'' is scheduled to run at the WPA Theatre through Sunday.
DALTON'S BACK Play by Keith Curran. Directed by Mark Ramont.
``DALTON'S Back'' and the Circle Repertory Company's got him. Two of him, to be precise. Keith Curran's seriously intentioned drama about the long-lasting effects of child abuse adopts the familiar device of linking two views of the central character. Dalton Possil (John Dossett) is an idealistic young schoolteacher embarking on his first serious love affair. Dalty (Matt McGrath) is Dalton's younger self at various stages, a troubled lad whose mother alternates between stroking his back when he can't sleep and verbally assaulting him.
Mr. Curran makes a fairly literal business of paralleling Dalty's childhood traumas with the bad dreams and tantrums that becloud Dalton's deepening relationship with Teresa MacIntyre (Colleen Davenport), the design artist who has moved in with him.
Mr. McGrath and Mr. Dossett are reasonably convincing as they respond to the demands of the author's emotionally fraught case history of the making of a male hysteric. Lisa Emery's Mom indicates the inadequacies of an unstable disciplinarian in what amounts to a single-parent household. (Dalty's father remains offstage.) As Teresa, Miss Davenport typifies a standard stage feminist who proves herself one of the liberated girls by talking like one of the boys. Jayce Bartok is along for comic relief as Dalty's pal and generally bad influence. ``Dalton's Back,'' scheduled to run through March 6, has been given a serviceable arena staging by director Mark Ramont, with scenery by William Barclay, lighting by Dennis Parichy, and costumes by Susan Lyall.