In 2001, Oregon City teenagers Miranda Gaddis and Ashley Pond disappeared, and local playwright Susan Mach found herself confronted with billboards of the girls' faces. Both intrigued and disturbed by media exploitation of the event, Mach found parallels between the girls' disappearance and a story more distant in both time and place: the 1874 abduction of 4-year-old Charley Ross, the country's first kidnapping for ransom. That Philadelphia abduction also met sensationalism, spurring popular songs, a Broadway play and the involvement of circus magnate P.T. Barnum. Mach tackles Charley's story and the resulting circuses—of both the literal and media varieties—in her world-premiere play The Lost Boy. Though the theme of bleeding tragedy for lurid gain resonates, the production suffers from plodding exposition, a casserole-like jumble of discordant styles and thorny tonal shifts.
Set against colorful backdrops of circus scenes—fire eaters, elephants and acrobatic bears—the first act trudges through Charley's abduction and the subsequent investigation. The young actors playing Charley (Logan Martin and Agatha Day Olson share the role) and his older brother Walter (Harper Lea) are a highlight: They exhibit remarkable self-possession and spar in some gosh-darned adorable playfights. The kidnappers—Duffy Epstein as the grizzled but melancholy mastermind and Sean Doran as his lonely, clumsy underling—bring emotional complexity to the proceedings. But exchanges between Charley's parents and the detective (a gravelly voiced, hard-bitten Doren Elias), which should heave with urgency and tension, feel undercooked and overlong.
Mach has intercut these scenes with circus spectacle, including juggling, balancing acts and straitjacket tricks. As Barnum—who did offer a reward for the return of Charley—Gray Eubank fails to fully flesh out the huckster's showy, manipulative manner. Luisa Sermol, however, vamps delightfully as a fortuneteller with wild eyes and a bouffant worthy of Helena Bonham Carter. But despite their clear intent, the circus interludes come across more as commercials breaks than integral dramatic elements. In the program notes, Mach wonders if she's guilty of exploiting Charley's story. If anything, she doesn't milk it enough.
SEE IT: The Lost Boy is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Sundays through Feb. 10. $25-$50.