KPBS AIRDATE: May 31, 2002
They definitely like ’em dark, if not deep. New Village Arts Theatre, North County’s latest and most ambitious addition to the San Diego theater community, debuted with “Brilliant Traces” last year, recently did a workshop production of “Trapped” and have now mounted “A Hatful of Rain.” There’s a through-line here about confinement, constriction, no exit.
The latest venture, Michael Gazzo’s 1955 Broadway play that became a successful movie, concerns Johnny Pope, a Korean War veteran, who, during his postwar hospital confinement, became addicted to mainlined narcotics. He’s kept his habit from his wife and father, but has been abetted by his hapless younger brother. Now he’s having more trouble getting a fix, he owes a lot of money, his dealer is closing in on him, and it’s time to spill the beans to the family. The kitchen-sink drama is reminiscent of the early work of Arthur Miller, especially “All My Sons” and “Death of a Salesman,” with their dysfunctional and disillusioned father/son triads.
Though there’s plenty of intensity and anguish here, there’s far less depth and social message than underlies Miller’s work and makes it so brilliant and enduring. Not that drug addiction isn’t relevant and family obligations aren’t pertinent. But somehow, the piece feels dated and a bit musty. Nonetheless, New Village has dusted it off and made it sparkle, in a forceful and focused production, presented in an unlikely venue: the corporate headquarters of Jazzercise in Carlsbad. Justin Hall’s spare set has a ’50s feel, but it’s not as cramped as the text suggests. Although each New Village offering has been in a different, sometimes site-specific location, it’s really the performances that give life and breath to the productions.
Francis Gercke, co-founder and artistic director of the company, serves as director and lead actor. A tricky business, but Gercke’s work is always riveting, and here he is gut-wrenching as poor, suffering Johnny. There isn’t a false or unconvincing note in his gripping performance. His co-founder and wife, Kristiane Kurner, is compelling as Johnny’s long-suffering spouse. The rest of the cast is forceful and convincing as well: Tony Gorodeckas as the younger brother, dealer/thugs Robert Dahey, Tom Reusing and Tristan Poje, Jack Missett as the deluded dad and Jessica John as a strung-out socialite. Besides the obvious relationship links, there’s also a historical connection; the play was developed and workshopped at the Actors Studio, of which Gercke and Kerner are graduates.
It all comes full circle, and everything looks hopeful in the end.. very unlike Miller’s neo-tragedies. But there’s nothing tragic about New Village Arts, which, with its youth, intensity and professionalism, brings a veritable hatful of sunshine to local theater.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc