KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 10, 1998
Two dark dramas about miscommunication and misguided morality — one by a master and one by a novice. The novice wins the day, and gets the decidedly better production. But that’s partly due to the writing.
Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee, once hailed as America’s “most skillful composer of dialogue,” must have been having a bad day in 1982 when he wrote “Finding the Sun.” It’s got his trademark preoccupation with disaffection and alienation. But the dialogue is so stilted at times that not even the most seasoned actors could pull it off.
In a bold and courageous move, Pondering Giant Productions has chosen this little-known, rarely produced Albee piece to make its San Diego debut. Founder-director Rick Brew scored big-time when he got Albee to come down and view an early rehearsal. The Great One, not known for his politesse, admired Brew’s handling of the material. The problem here isn’t so much Brew’s as Albee’s.
The one-act, one-hour play is really a series of 20 short scenes, vague interactions and audience-facing monologues, by six indifferent people scattered about the same New England beach. Most of them know each other, but each of them is very much alone. There’s a mother and her young son (possibly her lover), a father trying to come to terms with his gay son, a mother and daughter (who never interact), and two desperate couples, the husbands of which were once lovers — and their wives know it. Everyone exists in a kind of moral torpor, locked in their own soulless anomie. They don’t so much interact as bump against each other like billiard balls. “Finding the Sun,” may have a clever, double-entendre title (the sun on the beach? the mother’s son? the father’s? Coming out of the shadows into the sun?), but it’s not the strongest of Albee’s condemnations of complacency and vacuity. It’s as disengaged as its characters.
The cast is variable; Jill Drexler is most credible, and young Tim Foley, who has to cope with the most difficult discourse, does a nice job of confronting all the artifice and emptiness around him. As a man still lost and clueless at the end of his life, Michael Moerman is a striking counterpoint to the young, innocent adolescent.
Brew’s direction aptly captures the languorous malaise, backed by excellent set and sound design from his Lake Tahoe co-conspirators, Justin Soteros and Ian McKissock. An auspicious beginning. This Pondering Giant is obviously not afraid to wrestle with tough theatrical contenders.
Same could be said for the six year-old San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre, which just keeps getting better and better. This is especially true of its co-founder and executive director, Walter Murray, who gives a masterly performance in “Slave Trade,” a West coast premiere that deals with the barter of bodies and the selling of souls.
James Engelhardt’s dark, intense drama takes place on an 18th century rum-runner which has just left West Africa with a captured native onboard. The magical Mwivi matches wits with the disaffected, disenchanted captain Lynch, potently played, if too loudly at times, by an anguished Joe Powers. Lynch, who wants to tame the “jungle savage,” exposes his fears and frustrations to Mwivi, who takes it all in and turns his new knowledge to his ultimate advantage. Intruding on this battle of wills is Sean Flannery’s first-mate Cowper, a base and basic man who’d rather slit the African’s throat than fill it with food. At once disturbing and yet somehow disappointing, this cautionary tale is expertly directed by Patrick Stewart, who always wrings deep emotions and incendiary interactions from his material and his cast. Stewart also designed the jarringly evocative sound and set. There’s a dramatic drumbeat to this production and this theater company; you’d be wise to answer its call.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.