KPBS AIRDATE: April 02, 2004
Christ is on the cross in the movies, God is being debated in the Pledge of Allegiance, and we’ve got crucifixion and redemption on San Diego stages. The dramatist shoots for satire and the theologian for philosophical fantasy. Spiritual matters are at the heart of “The Great Divorce” and “Resurrection Blues.”
Morality has always been on the mind of the great American playwright, Arthur Miller, and the acclaimed Irish scholar C.S. Lewis. In Miller’s “Resurrection Blues,” a revolutionary Messiah has sprung up in the mountains of an unnamed South American country. The all-powerful but sexually impotent dictator, drowning in national and personal woes, decides to crucify the man publicly, hoping to bail out his country by accepting the offer of $25 million from a U.S. TV station that wants exclusive rights. The play spotlights excesses of media vulgarity, consumerism and hypocrisy, but the attempts at sly humor are overwhelmed by implausible plot-lines and preachy sermonizing, as the playwright slips from moralist to moralizer.
The characters may be shallow, stereotypical or improbable, but the play has a surprisingly upbeat (if simplistic) message: All You Need is Love. On opening night, there was more declaiming than interacting onstage. But the set was inventively quirky and there were some sucker-punch speeches. As the conscience of the country, Miller always offers us something to think about, talk about, even rage about. And having him sitting across the aisle at the Globe was frankly thrilling. This may not be one of his timeless masterpieces, but it is, as always, incredibly timely.
When C.S. Lewis considers Heaven and Hell, time is irrelevant. He may have died 41 years ago, but his work remains both popular and provocative. In “The Great Divorce,” written to counter William Blake’s conception of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Lewis suggests that whether one goes upstairs or downstairs after death is more a matter of faith and free will than divine judgment. People are where they are because they’ve chosen to be there, even given the option to leave.
In this allegory, adapted for the stage by Lamb’s Players artistic director Robert Smyth, a newly deceased seeker joins a busload of ghosts from Grey Town, a lonely rainy place, for a day-trip up to the idyllic Bright Plain. She meets all manner of sinners who, despite enticements to stay in Heaven, indignantly take their resentment, cynicism, lust, or pride back with them to Hell. The Lamb’s Players production is often beautiful to behold, with imaginative costumes, evocative sound and lighting and some gripping performances. But the points are made repeatedly and in the second act, dryly and didactically. Briefer would be better… but right now, it’s exhilarating to have some truly meaty issues to chew on after a night at the theater.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2004 Patté Productions Inc.