Balancing act

11th Street Theatre walks a high wire over Edward Albee's domestic disturbance

Echo Theatre has lassoed a cast of dependable Dallas actors for this tale of three women who hold a private garden party to protest an all-male dinner discussion about art by boho men. Director and Echo co-founder Pam Myers-Morgan, who previously helmed another delicious but denser historical saga of womanly woe and whimsy in Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed for Wingspan Theatre, again shows an eye for alternating drama and comedy. When a moment of confession or confrontation might tempt an actor to trudge through the scene, Myers-Morgan urges them to tread lighter along that path.

The play begins with a nightmare of fire and screaming and ends with a near-tableau at a painter's easel. These two extremes might describe the bipolar state of our heroine, Clovis (Suzy Blaylock), a woman recently out of an institution who rejected, in one flamboyant ritual, a promising career as a painter. She is genuinely cared for, and sometimes condescended to, by her husband, Victor (Chamblee Ferguson), who, by the standards of most violently territorial "No Girls Allowed" male painters, is a most decent and patient fellow. He's also got something of a traditionally feminine ear for love talk: He writes throbbing, florid love letters and signs them "The Centaur in the Garden." He even ghostwrites an erotic reminiscence by their maid, Dolores (Kateri Cale), who has, by her own admission, loved many men and stayed with them until they abandoned her.

When Victor plans a dinner party of influential male painters, he excludes his wife and all other artistic women from the table. The bicycle-borne arrival of Clovis' headstrong intellectual friend Pola (Linda Marie Ford) ups the tension and completes a trio that includes Clovis, who is frightened of but forlorn about her past painting career, and the maid Dolores, whose life as a professional domestic seemingly contradicts the series of heartbreaks she's suffered on the private domestic front.

Playwright Heather McDonald has said she wrote Dream of a Common Language when a museum exhibit detailed a men-only dinner that helped inspire the paintings. She had already, in the course of her own art studies, discovered a number of female artists whose remarkable work had slipped through art-history books. Some people wary of the "F" word might think McDonald has jumped back almost 125 years to view women's roles in America as an excuse to revive doctrinaire feminist outrage. Still, she does have two things on her side: the fact that women, to this day, have a suspiciously tiny presence in the sacred canon of Western painting, and the playwright's own willingness to temper this with the lonely voices of women who've put art first, relationships second. Dream of a Common Language doesn't affirm, assuage, or argue about women's subjugation as artists--it's far more concerned with the issue of whether men and women do indeed create utterly different art, and what that means when the two sensibilities (real or perceived) collide.

Echo Theatre offers Dallas audiences a series of engaging performances on the deck of their maiden voyage. Echo co-founder Linda Marie Ford is a bespectacled, sardonic cocktail of longing and agitation as Pola, a woman who wonders whether men paint with their penis, yet longs for a man who'll whisper to her in bed. Kateri Cale finally gets a juicy role after a series of cameos and supporting roles in recent productions; she is elegantly earthy as the maid, so good you're willing to forgive the suspicion that the playwright was being a bit optimistic when she had this servant accepted so readily into the company of two privileged, educated women in 1874. Chamblee Ferguson, as the husband who travels through concern and confusion to make a small but symbolically enormous sacrifice for his wife, wears tender befuddlement articulately well.

Echo co-founder Suzy Blaylock as the frustrated painter is good, but her role is blurry, more a pitstop for free-floating female angst about blocked creativity than a recognizable person. She displays some very irrational behavior and has been conceived with a quaint sheen of insanity reminiscent of the female characters of Williams or O'Neill. It's not a fatal misstep--the dialogue is so sharp, you only realize how less defined she is when you ponder it afterward. But the character does spotlight a foible that Echo Theatre, which declares itself dedicated to producing women's voices, might become aware of on its journey: Don't become so concerned with "the experience of women" that you forget the compelling, contradictory, heartfelt story of one woman.

Dream of a Common Language runs through August 29. Call 824-7169.

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