KPBS AIRDATE: September 17, 2004
Secret lives and senseless deaths. It’s a dark, rich week in San Diego theater.
Diversionary Theatre takes us to “Thief River,” a small Midwestern town with a strict moral code. Lee Blessing’s play ricochets backward and forward in time, from 1948 to 2001. We meet Ray and Gil as teenagers, in their forties and in their 70s. Their forbidden relationship is played out in an abandoned farmhouse, where they were first discovered together, and where, after years of anguish, betrayal and pain, they come together one last time. It’s a homophobic story, but in many ways, a portrait of general intolerance in America: the community that can’t abide difference, the individuals who feel forced to conform.
Diversionary’s interim executive director, Jeffrey Ingman, has created a spare, taut production, with three pairs of startlingly similar-looking actors playing the angst-ridden Ray and Gil, as well as a few other crucial characters in their lives. The best pairing is the middle-agers: Devlin Dolan and Karl Backus. Jonathan Dunn-Rankin is a compelling presence as Ray’s crusty, no-nonsense grandfather. It’s tragic for a life to be devastated by the judgment and censure of others. But that misfortune is by no means unique to the gay community.
Consider “Remains,” a world premiere by Seema Sueko that inaugurates her new Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. The theater’s name comes from the Hawaiian word for legend or narrative. The tale in this case is loosely based on Sueko’s own experience, her travels a decade ago in Israel and the Palestine territory. Like the fictional character she plays, Sueko is a Muslim American who hopes to find a little personal and political peace in the war-torn land. But Laila doesn’t live to tell her story; the play opens with her mother receiving her remains, reading her diary and trying to piece together the causes of her daughter’s murder, hopefully, frustratingly, with the help of a U.S. Senator. We never do find out what really happened, and the diary format, coupled with foreknowledge of the outcome, make for limited dramatic payoff. But director Siobhan Sullivan and her skillful cast keep us caught up and caring. Sueko is effervescent and ever-hopeful as Laila, and Linda Libby gives a heart-wrenching performance as the grief-stricken mother. Kathryn Venverloh turns the sketchily drawn Senator’s aide into a steely petty-bureaucrat. Set against the most desperate geopolitical backdrop, the play is a plea to hear all sides, to consider all truths. It serves as an auspicious theatrical beginning about a senseless end.
And speaking of irrational killings, it doesn’t get more macabre than “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s dark, brilliant musical about the “demon barber of Fleet Street.” Starlight Theatre’s production is stellar — magnificently sung and surprisingly unimpeded by the aircraft overhead. Tolerance, empathy and understanding are the missing links in all these plays… and couldn’t we all use some of that right about now?
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.