By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Desire Under the Elms runs through May 5 at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Call (972) 450-6232.
Playwright Diana Son, who contributed some of the best material to last season's TV show The West Wing, is a woman who wears her hair very short and eschews makeup. In interviews, the Korean-American writer talks about having been mistaken for a man at various times in her adult life, but no instance was more memorable to her than when she was walking down a New York City street with her husband. When they stopped to kiss, a passer-by casually snarled at them: "Faggots."
It was a misguided insult that played on Son's mind for a long time afterward, far past the surface offensiveness of the word. She began to ponder how impression plays against identity, be it how you identify yourself or how others identify you. An epiphany struck her: Most of us are stranded between polarities of perception. Are we any closer to knowing ourselves than other people are to knowing us if we and they view us as only one part of ourselves--lesbian, or male, or African-American? She realized the potential for being trapped by a label that's either derogatory or has been appropriated for political pride, as names such as "faggot" and "dyke" have been in the gay and lesbian community, and wondered how much complexity was lost in the process.
The results of this kind of cranium-crushing conjecture are beautifully distilled in Son's most famous play, Stop Kiss. If you declare this drama about what leads up to and follows two women viciously beaten in a city park to be an examination of hate crimes, you deny the script the subtle sophistication with which it pokes around inside the gaps of self-knowledge. The high-profile murders of Matthew Shepard, James Byrd and Billy Jack Gaither have raised awareness about the lengths to which minorities will be scapegoated and "crucified" out of frustration at their social progress. But in a sense, all the publicity surrounding these people has quenched our interest in knowing anything more about them besides they are black or gay and that they were victims--ironically, the same way in which their killers didn't want to know them any better. This two-sided simplification is what preoccupies Stop Kiss, and Echo Theatre's current production, under the speedy and incisive direction of SMU professor and frequent Echo collaborator Rhonda Blair, doesn't attempt to similarly reduce Son's play to political points.
A long series of very brief scenes alternate between what happens before and after the pivotal event of the title--Callie (Constance Gold) and Sara (Julie Ann Williams) exchange their first kiss on a park bench at 4 a.m. and are attacked by a stranger who calls them "pussy-eating dykes." The playful and touching kiss is actually the last thing that happens in the show, charging it with tenderness and terror for audiences who've learned where it will lead. The golden complication here is that neither woman considers herself a lesbian, and both are involved in fraught relationships with boyfriends George (Matt Halteman) and Peter (Tom Long). Sara has come from St. Louis to teach inner-city kids; Callie is a weary New York trouper who rides a helicopter daily and gives traffic reports. They are introduced as strangers after Callie agrees to watch Sara's cat; the friendship that develops over late nights with a bottle of wine mulling their differences soon sizzles into unexpressed romantic interest on both sides. When the beating happens (unseen and unheard by the audience) and Sara is rendered comatose, Callie must abruptly deal with the publicity when news reports of two lesbians being bashed consume the city. She endures the homophobic skepticism of Detective Cole (T.A. Taylor) and is finally coerced into admitting the "guilt" of what prompted the attack; she's scarcely more comfortable meeting with Mrs. Winsley (Molly Moroney), the woman who stopped the crime by throwing flowerpots out of her window, after Winsley asks, "How long have you two been together?" Musing about what is essentially a political adjective thrust upon her, Callie notes that she used to be "the blueberry muffin lady" to the guy down at the deli. "Now I'm the lesbian traffic reporter," she says with some bafflement.
If Echo Theatre's Stop Kiss is to work, the burgeoning affection between Callie and Sara must be palpable, measured with careful teaspoons by the actors until it slowly accumulates. Gold, an actor who was a regular stage presence with Undermain and Classic Theatre Company in the mid-'90s and is beginning to perform again, is an immensely appealing comedian, but she floods Callie with too much energy. You feel drained watching her scurry with sometimes-exaggerated facial expressions from end to end of the Bath House stage. The result is that she often seems far less jaded than Midwestern newcomer Sara. Williams, on the other hand, relaxes into that role with canny charm and an insinuating kind of seducer's smile that puts the reins of this romance squarely in her capable hands. With Williams as the calming force, these two actors beguile us in their best moments and suitably worry us when tragedy strikes.
Other productions of Stop Kiss have left ambiguous Callie and Sara's future, while Echo Theatre's seems to land firmly on the side of love. It's not so much a happy ending as a believable one, thanks to the meticulousness with which Gold and Williams chart their blossoming infatuation. Words such as "lesbian" and "dyke," written by the outside world on Callie and Sara before they've even consummated their amour, come to seem less empowering and belittling, respectively, than distracting; if things work out, they've got a life together larger than any group membership imposed for hostile or benevolent reasons.
A New York Times review of a 1963 revival of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms starring George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst is essentially positive about the playwright but does acknowledge a general perception that the play is "creaky and old-fashioned" and seems the "rudimentary" consequence of a "naïve writer working in a rustic vein." This, mind you, is a 37-year-old assessment, and although most major writers experience ebbs and flows of reputation if they're lucky enough to be discussed across the decades, I have never been able to shake a college professor's rather unflattering assessment of O'Neill that the Nobel winner overwrote humorlessly and often.
There can be little argument that O'Neill was the 20th century's first important stage experimenter in form, style and psychological realism (or Freudian cant, depending on your interpretation). He was also one of the first American playwrights to benefit financially from the published texts of his scripts during his lifetime. An argument has been posited that as O'Neill developed, he wrote as much or more for readers as for theatergoers. Maybe this explains the chunky, prosaic dialogue exchanged between his doomed dreamers, betrayers and lovers. That talk was given a stylized, clipped New England accent with Desire Under the Elms, which chronicles patriarchal collapse on a 19th-century farm. For WaterTower Theatre's new staging, director Terry Martin has recast the Cabot family of men as Appalachian tillers of the soil, with words such as "yours" and "hers" recast as "yourn" and "hern." It's not especially distracting (a frequent complaint of those who've heard the original Nor'easter dialect spoken as written), but also not effective or necessary. WaterTower's Desire benefits from one memorable performance, but the other actors range from blandly presentational to unintentionally comical. I'm going to blame Martin and O'Neill equally for this; if a director cannot find a way to spice up this 1923 drama's undercooked structure and boiled-over emotionalism, it should be left to the classroom.
Ephraim Cabot (Chris Messersmith, blustering to little avail in too much white powder on his hair and face) is the unforgiving elderly ruler of the farm where his three sons' endless labor is seemingly fueled by hatred for him. Youngest Eben (an unforceful Thom Penn) is especially embittered, because the land belonged to his mother and he believes Ephraim worked her to death and stole it. His attraction to the old man's new young wife Abbie (Morgana Shaw) is initially for reasons of vengeance; she, an orphan, angles to eclipse Eben's inheritance claim. Feelings change, loyalties reverse, a baby is made, and the family is destroyed. But we have problems developing strong sentiments about any of these characters. Equally adept at venom and pathos, Shaw is the only one onstage who keeps us watching her desperation and conflicted emotions. But she drowns in the cornpone stew of incestuous implications and ruinous fates O'Neill has concocted. At the play's too-abrupt close, as Messersmith huffs and puffs their comeuppance, she and Penn pose together facing the audience, frozen in an expressionless embrace. This stiff tableau of thwarted domesticity contains about as many identifiable signs of life as all the clamor that preceded it.
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