FREDONIA - Shakespeare said that the purpose of the theater is to hold up a mirror to humanity, so we can see our strengths and our weaknesses.
It's logical that we most want to look into a mirror when it shows our tie straight, our lipstick unsmeared, and our skin unblemished.
The Department of Theater and Dance at the State University of New York at Fredonia is currently performing a play called ''High Plains Fandango,'' by Red Shuttleworth. The play is a view of human nature which is so black, so grim, so utterly dystopian, it becomes almost more than we can bear to look at it.
The play is set in a small town on the western edge of the Sandhills region of Nebraska. Never wealthy, the town is now drying up. Businesses are closing or barely scraping along. The residents are so isolated, they have largely moved past what we think of contemporary culture. They don't care much for money, for example, because there isn't much of anything to spend money on. They have to drive a long distance to see a movie or eat at a restaurant, other than the town's diner.
Sex serves as something of a currency, although the minute someone's interest flags, even sex becomes a meaningless commodity.
The play has 11 characters. Like nearly all college theater, they suffer somewhat from the fact that the actors are virtually all the same age, while their characters are represented as teens or as the older husband of a young wife, etc. Still, each actor embodied his character completely.
Director Tom Loughlin has gotten brilliant characterizations from his actors, in a script which offers no saving qualities for anyone to build upon. Kelsey Rispin was strong as Waitress, the operator of the town's only diner, whose name is really Mary, but who prefers to have everyone just call her by her job title.
Clayton Howe gave a very strong rendering of O'Garr, one of the few citizens of the town who has fought his way out and attended some college, although now he's back with a pretty, new, college girl wife. O'Garr knows right from wrong, and he knows what works to get what he wants, and he knows that the two aren't the same thing.
The play, at about 150 minutes, is too long. It has made its point, long before it ends. Sometimes it falls victim to weak jokiness. For example. the only place to stay in the town is a hotel run by Louis Roche and his wife, Isabelle. Yes, it is too called the Roche Motel. Caitlin Malloy was especially enjoyable as Isabelle.
This is serious, adult drama. It can certainly inspire its audience to reconsider their lives and their values. Samantha Sayers designed the bleak set and the scenic projections which reduced the negative effect of the too-frequent scene changes.
It's truly worth attending, but allow me to recommend screwing up your courage and your self-respect before you dare to look into this particular mirror.
''High Plains Fandango'' repeats tonight, tomorrow, and March 1-3 in the Bartlett Theatre, on the Campus of Fredonia State.