There's a famous scene in the Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers in which Captain Spaulding (Groucho) finds himself deposited into a roomful of highfalutin society types and immediately decides that the better part of valor is a quick about-face. "Hello," he tells the assembled company, " I must be going." In his play, One for the Road, Bill Patton not only shares that sentiment, he spins it upside down and turns it into a question. "I am terrified," he says, "by the knowledge that one day I will lose the ability to choose." And through a series of reminiscences, his character Billy outlines some of the choices that he's made and how he learned to live with them. But what's persistently eating away at him is that one very central question remains unanswered.
At the outset, Billy relates the story of a 16-year-old girl who confides in him that she'd recently lost her virginity. The experience had been such complete bliss that she had briefly entertained the idea of suicide: the rest of her life, she imagined, could never equal that transcendent moment. This is the notion Patton uses to frame the rest of his monologue: How do you know when you should just check out? At this stage of the game, he argues, things are not likely to get much better. He mourns the toll that aging has taken on his body — "I've been on the downslide for so long. I'm so old I'm on the dark side of the moon."
So he decides to take stock of his life thus far, promising the audience that as a result of this process he is going to make a decision about whether to soldier on or call it a day. And just to make the whole thing more interesting, he imagines himself being interviewed by his own post-mortem self: a cantankerous specter who calls him "Billy" and rakes him over the coals of his personal history like a truly disagreeable Ghost of Christmas Past.
What follows is not some dire inventory of the soul. Billy and his ghost revisit his past and discover that it is rather like a big, drafty room with crap lighting and no comfortable furniture inviting a soul to take its ease. They are forced to plunge in and keep moving. It doesn't help that Billy's ghost finds all of this vastly amusing.
Patton's candor and humor create a compelling intimacy with his audience as he spins out a highlight reel of Billy's checkered existence. This lengthy confession becomes another way of saying that life is much too important to take all that seriously.
Even so, serious matters demand to be faced: love and lust, faith and the loss of faith, hypocrisy and reconciliation. Throughout, Billy re-enacts the pivotal conversations that tested him or led him to greater insight.
Each time he tackles a new topic and dissects how that issue played out in his life, Patton's audience is invited not only to be witnesses to the unfortunate detours but also to follow along with him the inexorable implications of each fresh epiphany. Divorce, adultery, psychological counseling, and family connections all come under the microscope.
Billy takes great pride in his Southern roots and the abiding consequences of that heritage. Along with some candid and barbed remarks on racism, the stories about his family often reveal larger-than-life characters: unrepentant rabble-rousers who never cease to surprise him. Witness Uncle Bubba's prescription for a life well-lived: "Get as much drinking, fighting, and fornicating as you can cram into one life and as much work as you need to afford all that."
The narrative moves along briskly. There's no dawdling, no pudgy excesses to trim off in Patton's tales. Endlessly inquisitive, compassionate and willing to learn, Billy's understanding steadily evolves and throws open new doors, any one of which, his ghost reminds him, might have made for a pretty good exit. "But you didn't die then, did you Billy?" he says again and again. It's heartbreaking.
Patton's play can rise, effortlessly, to great sweeps of eloquence full of passion and intensity. He quotes Shakespeare, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Cormac McCarthy right along with his Uncle Bubba. But most memorable is how the actor makes us believe, no matter how lofty his language, that he's simply having a heart to heart with us all. This may be a play, stitched out of entirely fictitious cloth, but Patton has the chops to make damn sure none of the seams show.
Piccolo Spoleto. One for the Road. $13-$16. June 2 at 9 p.m.; June 3 at 3 p.m.; June 4 at 6 p.m. Chapel Theatre, 172 Calhoun St. (866) 811-4111