A Perfect Ganesh

By Terrence McNallya-perfect-ganesh-7817

Directed by Steven Fedoruk

Produced by Eclipse Theatre Company, Chicago

Journey to Self-Fulfillment is Unsatisfying

I said in my review of Eclipse Theatre’s last production, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, that Terrance McNally’s 1991 play is like a time capsule which makes its AIDS-related turmoil as immediate as if we had traveled back to when it was written. The same cannot be said of his following play, A Perfect Ganesh, which Eclipse has ambitiously chosen for the second entry in their McNally season. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, A Perfect Ganesh tells the story of two middle-aged Greenwich women who travel to India in hope of finding spiritual renewal. While McNally was a smart enough writer to deconstruct this cliché while still invoking it, either he or Eclipse missed here in fully capturing the humanity of his subjects, which gets lost amid a story that tries to be intimate and winds up traversing a subcontinent.

Michael Harris, Jeannie Affelder, Elaine Carlson, and Phil Higgins. Photos by Scott Dray.
Michael Harris, Jeannie Affelder, Phil Higgins, and Elaine Carlson. Photos by Scott Dray.

The play begins with the Hindu god Ganesha explaining to us the omnipresence of the divine spirit of grace. He is played by Michael Harris, which is only somewhat curious since he and another actor, Phil Higgins, step in to play every character in the play except the two leading ladies, regardless of the characters’ sex or nationality. The bigger problem is that Ganesha has the head of an elephant, and the trunks on elephant masks tend to either look phallic or muffle the wearer’s mouth. The designers here decided to go for the second, and since Harris speaks in a very thick Indian accent, and Ganesha’s opening monologue is a very long stream of pablum, which Harris tries to keep interesting by whirling around in the style of traditional Indian theatre, the play is off to a rocky start. We join one of our leads, Margaret Civil (Elaine Carlson) just as she is raging in high dudgeon at an airline worker because her reservations have gone missing. Her friend, Katherine Brynne (Jeannie Affelder) tries to calm her down by treating the delay as the first part of their adventure, but her forced cheeriness manages to be just as annoying, and it will be two and a half hours of bickering before they learn their lessons.

Margaret continues to throw tantrums on the flight, and Katherine has visions of her son, who was killed in a gay-bashing by black teenagers, getting in an argument with Ganesha on the plane’s wing. Two things become clear: both women are deeply damaged, and they do not actually like each other all that much. It seems that they normally travel accompanied by their husbands to Caribbean resorts, but neither of the men wanted to go to India, which Katherine believes holds the key to making peace with her sense of guilt for never really accepting her son’s homosexuality, and the racist feelings his murder stoked. Margaret’s reason for going to India is similar, but a secret; she says from the beginning that she wants to stick to sanitized tourist spots, although she makes a greater effort than Katherine to combat her prejudices. They soon realize that they don’t really know each other, and are screaming at each other the moment they arrive in their hotel. By the end of the first act, we have only gotten through their first night together.

A-Perfect-Ganesh-4b-1024x721It’s not that Carlson and Affelder’s performances are completely unlikable, far from it. Both of them have tender monologs about mourning their lost children, loneliness, and the mix of discomfort and exhilaration they feel in a new, challenging environment. Carlson’s Margaret can be pragmatic and conscientious at times, and Affelder’s Katherine is sensitive and optimistic. Separately, their stories are interesting and full of pathos, and they get along will with Higgins and Harris’s characters. It’s when they’re together that the sparks fly, and McNally has them fight again, and again, and again. And both his script and Steven Fedork’s production are paced slowly, with new trials and conflicts arising until the characters’ lessons finally wind up sticking just because it’s the end of the play.

A Perfect Ganesh debuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and was previously performed in the Chicago area at Northlight. These are both much larger venues with larger production budgets. One of the women points out, correctly in my experience, that India’s reputation for fostering a new mindset in travelers is due largely to it being overstimulating and co-mingling signs of life and death. But this production has very little in the way of sound or lighting design to bring about that effect. There are a huge number of characters, thanks to all the transformations Higgins and Harris make, but none of them receive much focus, they are mostly two-dimensional, and since the cast only has four people (in accordance with the script), they can’t exactly replicate a crowd. This story might have been better as a movie. The good news is that Margaret and Katherine are both fully drawn characters, and unpleasant though they often are, it is heart-warming how they confront their flaws, grow in confidence, and learn to accept each other. I do appreciate that this play takes middle-aged women’s feeling seriously, which isn’t that common in theatre, and may prove a welcome relief for some audience members in that regard. Harris has his charms, and Higgins is quite likable in most of his roles, some of which are comic. But to appreciate these actors, an audience must be willing to invest nearly three hours, which they will feel the length of.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed July 24, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see A Perfect Ganesh’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $30, with discounts for students and seniors; to order, call 773-935-6875 or visit eclipsetheatre.com. Playing Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through August 23. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.

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