Tart and tasty

If time past and time future all point to the present, wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, then "all time is unredeemable." World War II gathered like a flock of vultures as the great poet was scribbling this in England, but the idea that what we regret and what we hope for or fear make life a pitilessly preordained tract can certainly be applied to intimate relationships. How can we do better than the past if it's constantly thwarting us? Although the time frame in Eve Ensler's new family drama Lemonade is more or less linear, there are enough allusions to the past to make the audience feel that natural laws of time and space could be broken by the show's trio of willful central characters. Echo Theatre offers an authentic production of the self-described "radical feminist" playwright's piece that is subversive less for its vague political concerns than for the taut combination of empathy and anger with which it treats a cold-blooded killer and the person who is reawakened to life because of him.

For the last couple of years, Ensler has been riding high on the worldwide success of The Vagina Monologues, the off-Broadway show that The New York Times at first refused to advertise because of its title (and that will soon feature Donna Hanover, Rudy Giuliani's wife). The playwright pulled an Anna Deveare Smith, interviewing women of dramatically different backgrounds about sexual experiences both wonderful and horrific (Echo Theatre will host a staged reading of the piece at Dallas Theater Center's Festival of the Unexpected in May). Necessary Targets, her next most famous play, was staged as a fund-raiser in New York and Sarajevo for the women victims of the so-called "rape camps" in the former Yugoslavia. Those works revel in more traditional feminist polemics than does Lemonade, whose North Texas premiere is steered by Southern Methodist University professor Rhonda Blair, who has herself traipsed across the minefields of American female identity in the one-woman shows I Used to Be One Hot Number and American Jesus.

The collision of two such opinionated creative minds might be expected to produce a rally rather than a stage show, but there is simultaneously too much pain for an uplifting evening and too much romantic pleasure to rattle the prison bars of sexism in alarm. Your consciousness is less likely to be raised by Lemonade than it is to be expanded by the reminder of the unfortunate ways in which our relationships overlap, intertwine, and strangle the pursuit of happiness.

Alice (Pam Dougherty) is the kind of unfailingly pleasant, pliable woman who is nonetheless never completely there -- her mind is always wandering away from the conversation to different, and, one assumes, better places. One morning after she leaves her kitchen to ward off the birds that are ravaging her garden, a man named Bernard (T.A. Taylor) wanders in and sits down at the table. He claims to have no memory of a past life outside of that kitchen and repeatedly asks how long the two have been married. Alice falls for his gentle neediness, much to the chagrin of her grown daughter Jane (Linda Marie Ford), who discovers that the past Bernard has discarded contains unspeakable violence. Jane has what appears to be anorexic tendencies from the burden of carrying the relationship with her unresponsive mother alone, and a lifetime of resentment floods over her civil demeanor when she sees Alice so alive and engaged.

Linda Marie Ford as Jane, the suspicious professional whose appetite resumes after she has thwarted her mother's reckless romance, is appropriately loud and angry. And although her disruptive presence isn't really supposed to be on the same page as the two tranquil lovers, I wish Ford had rationed her hostility a little more artfully. She rants in a way that yanks away our sympathy for a woman who's horrified to discover the past of the individual to whom her mom has finally decided to open up. Her wariness and hasty behavior are justified, even if there's a vengeful satisfaction in them, but Ford overloads them with the flavor of petty vengeance. That makes the theme of starvation and renewed hunger more facile than it was probably intended to be by Ensler: Jane begins to gain weight when she has discovered a taste for comeuppance, or so we think from Ford's performance.

Meanwhile, Pam Dougherty as Alice and T.A. Taylor as Bernard sneak up on you and take hold with satisfyingly cumulative performances. They accomplish what the best theater is supposed to -- making unbelievable situations plausible and instructive for our own lives -- with initially reserved performances that build to crescendos of desperation (Dougherty) and unimagined contentment (Taylor). He seems as much a child to her as a lover, adopting this passivity after he has vented all his rage in his previous domestic arrangement. Although she could never articulate the ways in which the roles of mother and lover so dissatisfied her in the past, Alice finds Bernard to be a perfect fit for both voids and is willing to do anything to keep them filled. When Dougherty bares her ample breasts during a long monologue of fresh, fervent hope for a new life while in bed with Taylor, the gesture is sexy, maternal, and manna from heaven for us folks starving at the media buffet of youthful, athletic bodies. She finds grace in dowdiness and uncertainty.

The Bath House Cultural Center is serving only one more weekend of Lemonade, so hurry up and buy your tickets. Rhonda Blair's astute direction manages to blend the wide variety of feelings -- rowdy, meditative, horny, mournful, vindictive -- into one coherent statement about how the same individual can offer everything to one person and nothing to another, can be destructive and inspiring when in different rooms dealing with different people. It's all in the timing, Eve Ensler seems to suggest, but even serendipity has an emotional fallout that the lucky ignore at their peril.

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Jimmy Fowler