Bad Axe

Rated 5.0 Once each season, the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City bravely mounts an original play about life in the American West. It’s an ambitious project that plows new and fertile ground, something I’ve come to look forward to. And for the third year running, Foothill has mounted a challenging, edgy, absorbing production. It’s well worth the drive to Nevada City.The play is Bad Axe by P.J. Barry, best known for the Broadway success The Octette Bridge Club.

Bad Axe is set in an isolated fort in northwestern Illinois circa 1832 during the waning battles of an American Indian war.

The story has a gruesome background. A military man has gone off the deep end after his 9-year-old daughter is killed and scalped. He takes revenge by gathering a “collection” of Indian scalps, while his superiors look the other way. But after he dies in battle under bizarre circumstances, an investigation is held—and the investigation is the meat of this four-character play.

Barry, who also directs, works with many themes—politics, love and hate between men and women, frontier life and the lingering question of who’s civilized and who’s savage. Unsettling accounts of violence are counterbalanced by sly, biting humor—a heady blend.

Alexandra Matthew turns in a remarkable performance as the American Indian fighter’s wife, a suspect in her husband’s death. Philip Charles Sneed (Foothill’s artistic director) is memorable as the lame Sgt. Quigley, who is more than he appears initially. Foothill regulars Gary Wright and Karyn Casl also are solid and shine in a long interrogation scene.