KPBS AIRDATE: JANUARY 22, 1998
Repressed desire. Passion seething under the surface. A strait-laced outward existence that belies a sultry, sensual internal urge. Two very different women in two very disparate plays, separated by half a century, share an intense, but suppressed carnal craving. Alma Winemiller is at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ lyrical “Summer and Smoke,” written in 1947, and Maritza Cruz paces the stage in “Unmerciful Good Fortune,” a spiritual and poetic 1996 drama by New Yorican Edwin Sanchez.
The duality of the spirit and the flesh is nothing new in the plays of Tennessee Williams. In “Summer and Smoke,” Alma is the prim daughter of the local minister, who is repelled, fascinated and secretly in love with, her handsome, amoral neighbor, Dr. John Buchanan, Jr. She sets about to provide him with higher moral standards, while he takes it upon himself to teach her the realities of life and sex. Both are all too successful — to disastrous effect.
As in many of this other plays, Williams and his imaginative creations are haunted and taunted by the worldly and the sensual. Like Blanche DuBois, the tortured centerpiece of the brilliant “Streetcar Named Desire,” Alma is a fluttering Southern belle whose veneer of refinement masks emotional starvation and sexual rapacity. For these women, the potency of men like John Buchanan (and “Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski) contains the promise of salvation and destruction.
In the North Coast Repertory Theatre production, what’s missing is libido. Lisa Pedace is terrific in those fluttery moments, but she doesn’t make us feel her desperate, underlying sexuality. Director Joe Powers took a commendable gamble casting Doug Reger against type, but Reger’s John never quite achieves the suave, slick façade of a roué. The rest of the cast is highly uneven, mostly played for caricature, except for Michael Moerman, whose Dr. Buchanan, Sr. is pleasantly avuncular. Marty Burnett’s tripartite set works just fine, with its symbolic stone-angel center-stage. The piece feels hot and Southern, but not sufficiently starved and steamy.
There’s a lot more sensuality on and under the surface in the Fritz Theatre production of “Unmerciful Good Fortune” — an intriguing and disturbing play about Latinas and lesbians, spirituality and district attorneys, the right to life and the rightness of helping someone to die.
Maritza, the good Puerto Rican from the Bronx, is pitted against Fatima, the tough gang-girl with psychic powers and a social conscience. Maritza is the assistant district attorney for Fatima, a fast-food worker who’s murdered 28 people by poisoning their burgers. When she holds someone’s hand, she can see everything about their life, and when she sees nothing but an awful, hateful, hopeless scenario, she figures those people are better off dead. Her power is not only in her mind, but also in her voice and in her body.
Carol Abney gives a riveting performance as Fatima, who, though she’s a prisoner, seems to be in perfect control. Maritza’s imprisonment is more symbolic, and her life as single mother and caregiving daughter, is unraveling, spiraling out of control. Maritza’s pain, or as Fatima puts it, “the splinter in her heart,” may only be removed by her supposed opposite and adversary. Across the legal abyss, these two women are strangely, inexorably attracted to each other. Laura Lee Juliano is intense and restrained as Maritza, but it’s a powerful performance. Likewise Dale Morris as the weak but pompous D.A. The rest of the cast doesn’t reach the same dramatic heights, but Karin Williams’ taut direction keeps the tension high. Sanchez sometimes gets bogged down in his own long list of psycho-social issues, but his play and his murderous central character are provocative and unsettling.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.