Los Angeles Theater Review: BALM IN GILEAD (Coeurage Theatre Company at Actor’s Circle Theatre)

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: BALM IN GILEAD (Coeurage Theatre Company at Actor’s Circle Theatre)

by Jason Rohrer on March 3, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Go up into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt: in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured. – Jeremiah 42:11.

In 1964, Lanford Wilson wrote a play startling in its representation of a gritty present, and even more surprising now for its continued relevance.  Balm in Gilead, currently experiencing a vivid revival by Coeurage Theatre Company, might feel dated in its verbiage and in its wide-eyed depiction of heroin junkies, male and female prostitutes, and other members of the lowlife diaspora converged in a New York cafe.  Instead this production overcomes period terminology and old-hat subject matter to create a drama that surprises and delights while, and even because, it remains faithful to its source.

BalmInGilead6763088697_dea89d91efThe play requires overlapping dialogue and constant focal shifts to maintain the verisimilitude of its environment, so Meredith Hinckley Schmidt has gone ahead and directed the show as a tour-de-force of cacophony in which twenty-three actors chatter nearly nonstop.  The audience must hunt through this greasy spoon Babel for the thread of story, for delineations of character and plot, and for a reason to be there, just like the characters onstage.  It’s old-fashioned audience involvement, done without experimental seating arrangements or non-traditional staging or video projected onto a spinning ball; just a plain proscenium and some imagination.  Wilson loads the play with plenty of his own stage directions, but the director and her first-rate ensemble go further to create the sort of credible, larger-than-life universe only live theater can offer.

BalmInGilead6763088057_c9841748a1Ostensibly the story of small-time drug pusher Joe (Jesse Steccato) and dim neophyte hooker Darlene (Valorie Curry), this really is the story of every loser who ever recognized his situation and failed to make the best of it.  Trapped in the grip of a world too sophisticated to comprehend, freaks and rejects overflow the stage with desperate commitment to the moment – the moment is all they have, and when you have little, little is much.  They seek solace from the hurly-burly, but instead of providing release, their violent medicines lock them into bondage to pain and fear.  Jenna Pletcher’s simple cafe set serves as a battlefield and a demilitarized zone, a schoolroom and a prison where the inmates recognize threats to their habits BalmInGilead6763087973_a9a116f4dband alliances, and they learn to lash out: they bitch, they throw punches, they steal; they lie; they tell the truth.

At the center of all this Darlene pursues Joe, a heel no worse and certainly no better than any of these bums.  What does she want from him?  What do any of us want?  Schmidt and Curry take their time with Darlene’s seven-page explanation, almost the only time the show slows down at all, so that the playgoer may appreciate the gravity of her pathetic situation.  It’s a dangerous and admirable directorial choice to allow this much time for a tale told by an idiot, and as the moments begin to drag with tedium, we recognize exactly how soul-sucking life must be for the people we step over on our way to lunch.  These people, and the rest of us, are doomed to embrace what we have embraced, because Wilson’s edict is that we cannot change.  We move forward only in the chronological sense, and tomorrow will find us here again drinking the same bitter coffee.  So brew it strong.

photos by Laura Crow

Balm in Gilead
Coeurage Theatre Company
Actor’s Circle Theatre in West Hollywood
scheduled to end on March 4, 2012
for tickets visit Coeurage

Comments on this entry are closed.