KPBS AIRDATE: October 12, 1994
“Aunt Dan and Lemon” is the kind of play that leads an audience down a primrose path. It starts out innocuous enough. But then, it takes a sharp detour: the terrain becomes rocky, the sky turns dark, and the audience is left to find its own way out.
Aunt Dan is not really an aunt; her name is Danielle. And Lemon is the nickname she’s given to Leonora, a sickly young girl who is the centerpiece of the play. These are Lemon’s memories of a life she didn’t so much live as have told to her. In the summer of her eleventh year, Aunt Dan, a friend of her parents, comes to visit every night, and tells wild stories of her adventures with sex, politics and murderous friends. Sometimes Aunt Dan tells her tales in long, winding monologues. Sometimes we get Lemon’s lengthy recollections. And sometimes, the other characters appear in the background to enact their scenes.
At first, the wan, frail Lemon seems sweet and pitiable. But she is, from the outset, curiously, and ultimately monstrously, dispassionate. As the scenes unfold, in one swirling, seamless 110-minute whole, we see the evolving education of Lemon, and her twisting of other people’s thoughts and opinions into a ghoulish, unemotional amorality. The through-line is slaughter and the medium is dialectic. Like his daring dialogue film, “My Dinner With André,” Wallace Shawn’s play is primarily a philosophical discourse.
With its calm, logical defense of fascism and Nazism, the Obie Award-winning play was extremely controversial when it opened in London and New York in 1985. Accompanying the published text is the playwright’s explanation, entitled “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening.”
In it, Shawn says: “In the world of the play, evil triumphs, whereas my own view about the way things stand in the real world is that we might still be able to prevent the complete triumph of evil, particularly if we recognize that the complete triumph of evil really is a possibility and that the partial triumph of evil has already occurred.”
If this is the kind of provocation you like in the theater, North Coast Rep will treat you to a very commendable production of a very difficult play. Fresh from an annoying trifle, “Apocalyptic Butterflies,” the company has taken one of its notorious flying leaps into the theatrical abyss. Once again, the risk has paid off.
Olive Blakistone has mounted a quiet, understated production of this disturbing piece. The direction is spare; the sexually explicit scenes are managed with extreme skill and sensitivity. Marty Burnett’s scenic design makes the whole piece flow, with its new turntable, its latticework and greenery, and a central circular window, which, symbolically, provides a distorted view of the outside world.
Downstage, Michelle Napolitano bravely tackles Lemon, mostly with success. She’s not quite fragile enough, and her accent, lost somewhere between American and English, comes and goes. But her placidity is aptly unnerving. Rhona Gold’s Aunt Dan is best in her moments of passion, in her obsessive speeches about Henry Kissinger. The rest of the cast is quite competent, with a standout performance by Devorah as Mindy, the hedonist who’ll do anything for money.
Maybe Shawn leans toward protraction and polemic, but he never panders to an audience; instead, he provokes. We come to see that Lemon is partly, frighteningly, right. We aren’t Nazis, but we do take a perverse pleasure in destroying whatever gets in our way, from cockroaches to criminals. This play is chilling — because, in the best tradition of theater, it seems to be about someone else, but it’s really about us.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.