From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 105, Number 10 - March 6, 2008
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Carmen Hittle, Dylan Nelson and Ben Croslend play with props before rehearsal starts.
Playing Around
Gas worker takes the stage

The figures visible through the frosty windows of the United Church of Christ were just gathering their jackets to leave, when suddenly a truck swerved into the parking lot and a giant, muscle-bound man leaped out.

Glancing through the windows to confirm that people were still inside, the stranger heaved his huge frame into a lumbering run up the ramp to the front door. The dozen people inside, most middle-aged women in fuzzy sweaters or giggly teenage girls, watched with wide eyes as the massive profile bounded past the windows.

The door flung open, revealing Ben Croslend, filling the doorframe with all of his 6-foot-5, 280-pound, former-defensive-end-for-Utah-State enormity.

Still breathing hard, he barreled into the room, his strides catapulting him across the floor in a few seconds. When he reached the group, where everyone stood at least a head shorter than him, he fumbled his big mitts in his pockets and smiled, trying to blend.

Ben, who plays Ralph in “Oh, Promise Me,” rehearses one of his scenes for the play.
Barbara Wise stood from the chair where she had been watching a local librarian mumble shyly through a scene. At a flat 5 feet, she met Ben at just above hip level, and squinted up at him to scrutinize his face, still sweaty from the workout he’d abandoned to make it there in time.

On any other night, Barb might have seen this towering 33-year-old and shrugged him off as just another gas field worker. Probably a nice enough guy, but still a permanent stranger, another member of the transient mob ever coming and going with barely a glance at the activities in the small town hosting the frenzy of an energy boom.

But that night, as Barb craned her neck upward, she saw at long last, after fruitless hours of auditioning nervous and rigid locals, just the man she had been waiting for. She saw Ralph, the obsessive lover turned vigilante, the character scribbled in her director’s notes as: “a man with a purpose.”

She held out a script, twisted and bent by hands belonging to men who were too short, too quiet, too something. “You here to read?” Barb asked. Ben took the crumpled pages and nodded once. “You bet.”

Ben sighs when he remembers how his coworkers found out.

His boss James, a gritty Texan cowboy, had approached Ben across the snowy gas field to ask him about filming a training video for their pipeline company.

“Hey, Hollywood!” James called. “I got a task for ya!”

Ben blinked at him in surprise. “You heard about that?”

His boss frowned. “Huh? What are you talking about?”

“Well, you heard about me being in the play, right?” Ben asked.

James hadn’t. “Play? What are you talking about?”

Ben spoke slowly. “I’m… actually in the town dinner theater play.” His boss stared. “OK…” he said. “Really?” This might be the common reaction from most who hear that Ben, a pipeline supervisor on the Jonah Field and seven-month Pinedale transplant, is dabbling in the first community theater performance the town has held in 10 years.

But the former football player takes his part in the farce “Oh, Promise Me,” being performed in the United Church of Christ

through Saturday, very seriously. During his breaks on the field, Ben jacks up the heat in his truck and stares at the dogeared playbook. He belts his lines and frowns, repeating “that. THAT. Tha-tuh,” biting the air with his teeth to “punctuate” his consonants, as Barb has repeatedly shouted at him during rehearsals.

“The first week (after I got the part), I was just yelling in the car, screaming at myself,” Ben said. “I’m supposed to be a loud person, and I was always trying to put little twists on it. But it turns out the best way to say my lines is just loud and rude, which makes it real easy.”

Although technically a small part, a bully who pops up occasionally in the second and third acts, Ralph is written to lead a one-man mutiny through the play’s central plot. Boiling with virile ferocity, he explodes on the stage, usurping the lead actors from the spotlight and ensnaring the attention of every eye in the audience.

Or so Ralph should, if performed right. And Ben, the gas field worker who has rarely seen a play let alone ever acted in one, does it right.

“When Ben first walked into the auditions, (the assistant director) Jen and I looked at each other and said, ‘this is Ralph,’” said Barb, the play’s director who has put on eight other Pinedale community theater performances. “The fact that he’s so big was perfect, and when we heard him read, we were just really impressed with what he could do.”

It wasn’t just his size.

Instead, Barb was enthralled by how Ben didn’t bother to catch his breath before jumping into a cold reading, by his blatant energy when he clutched the script and shouted out his lines.

He had the look of a man with a purpose. And indeed Ben has a purpose, one that the play can help move forward. His goal stretches beyond Ralph’s desperation for romantic justice, as well as the only objects that some Pinedale natives assume gas workers have: to fatten their wallets and count the hours until they can drive back home.

Not Ben. In fact he, and he’ll contend the same about many of his fellow gas field men, is simply chasing after his future. To him, Pinedale is his final chance to settle down, a place where he can make a permanent, stable life.

Or at least more stable than his past attempts, which amounted to little more than heartfelt failures.

First there were the NFL tryouts out of college, which only earned him a handshake with John Elway.

The next five years of touring the country playing arena football ended abruptly with a bad hip, a Twinkie binge and an extra 50 pounds.

After joining his wife in Florida, Ben’s career peaked with Sub prime lending, which he swears he didn’t know would doom so many clients to foreclosure.

When Ben complained to his mother, still living in his hometown of Kemmerer, she offered a solution. A job that geology guaranteed would last 30 or 40 years, an impressive salary and a nice small-town environment to plant roots in.

“I’m like, I’m going up there. I need to find some security and find a career,” Ben said.

“And I scored.”

Immediately after arriving in town last summer, Ben divided his days between work and hammering out a respectable social life. He volunteered to assist coaching the junior high football team. He resisted lounging away his weekends at the bar — too smoky — and instead played Halo with high school kids at a local church on Saturdays.

He’s a regular at the local gym in the morning, when he does cardio, his body dwarfing the exercise bikes like doll furniture. He returns in the evenings to lift weights, bent on winning a bet with a friend at the gym on who can lose 10 percent of his body weight first.

He’s still waiting for his wife to sell their house in Florida, but in the meantime has found a surrogate wife in his landlord Keith, an 85-year-old with goggle-sized glasses. Ben rents out the basement of the Cora ranch house, and most nights he ambles up the stairs and joins his landlord for sugar cookies and a marathon of black-and-white Westerns.

“It’s great rent, great company,” Ben said. “Keith just needs to work on putting more sugar in his cookies, and everything will be perfect.”

If he thinks he’s capable, Ben will seize any opportunity to get involved and fit in. So when he listened to a friend’s voicemail encouraging him to audition at the church early last month, he didn’t hesitate to abandon his dumbbells at the gym, grab his only dry shirt and drive to the auditions an hour late, fixed on finding one more way to reach out, to extend his community family and hey, maybe get discovered by a Hollywood agent.

“(Before I act), I think about my character. I want to do him justice,” Ben says. “I want people to remember him.”

And hopefully, remember Ben, too, as a member of the community.

Tuesday night, a month before the first performance, the cast is assembled in the church’s event room once again. The dozen amateur actors shuffle onto the wooden stage sagging at one end of the room and lounge around the prop furniture.

Barb stands behind a desk facing the stage and frowns as the cast talks and teases each other.

“OK, people!” she shouts, drumming her fingers as she waits for them to fall silent. “Boys and girls, we’re one month in. Work for Friday, because that’s when the playbooks go down.”

The cast moans, and Ben exchanges wide eyes with the other actors.

“I’m screwed,” he announces.

The solo rehearsals in his car have gone smoothly up to now, and when he recites his lines at home in bed, Ben’s raucous shouts have made his landlord whack the floor with his cane for silence.

But when Ben tries to perform in front of other people, “I can’t do it — it’s petrifying,” he said outside of the rehearsal. “I can’t believe these high school kids who are acting in this play, and are doing school on top of it. I have a totally brainless job, and I still can’t remember my lines.”

But the rehearsal suggested otherwise. Ben’s entrance alone draws attention, his megaphone lungs hollering his lines like God dropped by to give a hurried damnation. A shouting match between Ben’s character Ralph and his spurned lover Cathleen wins applause from the other actors.

“The way he presents himself, he just walks in the room and it makes you laugh,” said Judy Wigginton, who plays Cathleen. She understands Ben’s need to fit in, as she too moved to Pinedale just over a year ago.

In fact, nearly the entire cast is comprised of new residents who followed the opportunities of the energy boom.

They share Ben’s purpose to use the play as a chance to rise above the status of their daily jobs and find a niche in the community, to expose themselves to their new neighbors by literally putting themselves on display for all to see.

And Ben will make it a memorable performance, she said.

She’s personally proud of his work in the third act, when Judy delivers such a hard slap to Ben’s cheek it resonates across the room. “It was actually Ben who said, ‘just go ahead and slap me,’” Judy said. “To me, that shows he’s not afraid to do anything out there. He’s ready to do it all.”

Photo credits:  Alecia Warren, Alecia Warren

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