Blind Leading the Bland

Plays about the nobility of disease inevitably bathe the afflicted characters in halos as the most normal, well-adjusted, right-thinking people onstage. It's everyone else around them who has the problems, imply the playwrights in such dramas. In their canon, a handicap clarifies values, gives the bearer a right to inflict judgments (however cruel) on the non-afflicted and serves as a shortcut to the right hand of the Great Almighty.

So it is with Melanie Marnich's Blur at the Dallas Theater Center. What Wit did with cancer, what Children of a Lesser God did with deafness, what so many other plays have done with everything from autism to quadriplegia, Blur tries and ultimately fails to do with blindness. Specifically, Leber's optic atrophy, a rare genetic condition that causes degeneration of sight and then sudden darkness.

Plucky teen-ager Dot DiPrima (Maria Dizzia) is our little heroine, discovering that her eyes have gone all bonky when she picks up pepper instead of salt during Thanksgiving dinner. Never-married Mom (Sally Nystuen Vahle) flies into off-the-charts denial when informed by the inexplicably swishy eye doctor that the condition is passed along maternally. Mom, who's so idiotic she thinks pinkeye comes from using public toilets, turns around and lies to Dot, telling her it is her biological father--absent and unseen--who is to blame.

"I wish it were you going blind!" Dot screams at her mother. But, oh, don't you see that she is, sweet girl? Predictably, this overwrought, overwritten mama shuts the doors, pulls down the shades and hides from the Big Truth. She tries to keep Dot inside, as well, but the girl wants out.

"Bad things happen in the dark," Mom says.

"Dark is to my advantage," answers Dot.

Forced to escape into premature adulthood, spunky daughter wings it solo in a pair of Coke-bottle lenses. When, late in the play, Dot learns the truth about the maternal factor in her disease, she returns home to forgive Mom and finds her confused and unkempt, curled in a rocking chair, chatting gobbledygook to 800-number operators at Clairol and Betty Crocker. Mom has gone mad as a March hare from her loneliness, leaving brave, doting Dot, now elevated to living sainthood by her blindness, to bring her back to sanity.

But that's the end of the play. Between Mom's two big, boring breakdown scenes are about 75 minutes of Dot's sad, odd little odyssey into the bad, noisy world of the sighted.

As a free spirit, feeling her way to her bliss through an ever-darkening fog, Dot encounters cutesy characters only a desperate playwright could love: Joey Joe (Michael Esper), a Fonzie-talking mook who cleans zoo cages for a living; and Francis Butane (Dara Fisher), a lesbian grunge person whose only reason for existing in Blur seems to be to provide a dark female counterpoint to Dot's cotton-candy sweetness (yes, sparing no chance to remain unsubtle, she does actually eat handfuls of the pink confection at one point).

There's also a priest, Father O.O. (H. Francis Fuselier), so distraught at not being able to cure Dot's condition with the power of prayer that he trades in his church for a bicycle altar and a life among the homeless. (And Dot's only wearing thick glasses, not using a white cane. Talk about overreacting.)

Dot holds her little band of misfits together. But playwright Marnich never makes it clear why. They all just seem to be there artificially for the sake of the drama, quirky outcasts reduced to sharing soliloquies about the contents of their dream life, dialogue every bit as tedious in a play as in reality.

Dot even gets sick of her pals' angst, telling them, "You're all losers!" and that she hates them intensely. But seconds later, her angelic side returns and she's the good listener, smiling beatifically as each character steps forth to spill his or her own painful bad-mommy secret. Joey Joe's abandoned him, leaving him to sleep on zoo benches after closing time. The mother of grungy, angry Francis committed suicide.

So, see, Dot? Mothers can do much worse things than pass along bad genes.

But playwrights can't do much worse than trying to pass off Lifetime movie fodder as high art. And almost everything about Blur is seen-it, heard-it, read-it-before. From the tiresome mother-daughter battles to the doctor's textbook recitation of symptoms, it adds up to an overwhelmingly unimportant and unaffecting bit of trivia, lacking resonance or an original outcome.

The only spark of artistry about this production of Blur is Adam Stockhausen's gorgeous set, which seems altogether too beautiful and cleverly constructed to be wasted on such slight material. Shaped in a wide wedge, the abstract space glows silver, absorbing and reflecting Matthew Richards' well-choreographed lighting design. The set expands and contracts in a constant series of surprises: Sliding doors and walls appear and disappear, moving floor panels deliver furniture and people, flying set pieces arrive like whispers. It's pure art, as beautiful empty as it is in use.

Clunking that up, however, are Diane Simon's costume designs, a collection of some of the ugliest outfits actors have ever been forced to wear in public. Like the shabby stuff at the bottom of the hamper that you don't want to wash or wear anymore, these clothes look dirty and slept-in, and in almost every case show off the worst aspects of their wearers' silhouettes. It's a tribute to the actors that they manage to get any words out while wearing such awful shmattes.

And speaking of words, more of them might have been heard had three of the main actors not spoken with thick, sibilant S's. An earlier incarnation of the play gave the Francis Butane character a cleft palate. Thankfully, that little bit of gratuitous handicapability has been eliminated.

Of the cast, Maria Dizzia is worth mentioning simply because she carries whatever momentum the play has with her unflagging energy and her creamy facial expressions. Too bad director Claudia Zelevansky and playwright Marnich have consigned her to stumble around in the dark of a weak script, uttering forgettable words amid unlikable characters.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner