KPBS AIRDATE: January 17, 1996
Many works of art confront the fundamental question of how life should be lived. What standards should be set? What values should be revered or reviled? Two current plays on San Diego stages take very different approaches to this question: one is microcosmic and contemporary; the other is broadly historical. The Old Globe production, “The Substance of Fire,” is a family drama. “The Living,” at the Fritz, can be viewed as an archival cautionary tale.
Set in London, 1665, “The Living” chronicles the city’s Great Plague. This isn’t the first time the Fritz has confronted a pandemic. There was the darkly comic “Baltimore Waltz” and the frightening, semi-futuristic “Beirut.” But “The Living” may be the Fritz’s most daring, searing and intense production yet.
Christina Courtenay expertly directs a crackerjack cast in Anthony Clarvoe’s 1993 award-winner. Based largely on actual accounts of the demise of nearly a quarter of the city’s population, the play more than resonates today. In her program notes, Courtenay broadens the philosophical landscape, making analogies not simply to AIDS, but to all the other deadly viruses and inhumanities that plague modern society.
Catastrophe, as we all know, brings out the best and the beast in people. As a scientist and a merchant who stay behind with the dying to do what they can, Todd Blakesley and Jim Johnston give very powerful, very focused performances. As a shopkeeper’s wife who loses everything but gains humility, DeAnna Driscoll is mesmerizing. Harry Zimmerman is a howl as a foppish, self-serving cavalier, and Tim West and Scott Coker are intense as a dedicated doctor and iconoclastic minister.
There is no direct physical contact between characters here — until the very last moment. This potent piece of theater makes you want to hang onto your loved ones — and your humanity.
Uptown at the Globe, the characters in “The Substance of Fire” also maintain a distinct distance, even though they’re family. At the center of this much-heralded 1991 play, written by Jon Robin Baitz when he was only 29, is Isaac Geldhart, a literate, literary powerhouse. An Old World Jewish immigrant, Isaac witnessed the Holocaust but wasn’t actually sucked into it. So he wraps himself in a rough cloak of guilt, anger and judgmental intellectualism. He is supercilious, but he has standards. And he will not be swayed by his three children, who, threatening to buy him out, urge him to save the business by publishing a steamy best-seller rather than an arcane anti-Nazi tome.
In Act one, Baitz gives us the setup for the dissolution of the business and the family. Act two, set three years later in 1990, is a whole different energy and character, sometimes unnervingly so. But through it all, we, like Baitz, never take our eyes off Isaac; he is the play. And veteran actor Harold Gould inhabits him flawlessly. It is a thrilling performance. The other actors have much less to work with; they are saplings in the shadow of a giant redwood, this tough and elegant titan who can be as charming as he is monstrous, as funny as he is caustic.
Andrew Traister’s direction is uneven, like the play itself. But the language and themes are rich. Isaac is a study in high moral principles — but he is also emblematic of the high price paid for extremes of ethics, intellectualism, obsession with the past, nurturing ideas more than people, and escaping from the real world into the world of books.
The particulars of one life lived can say a lot about how to live life.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.