Directed by Jonathan Berry
Produced by Griffin Theatre Company
At The Den Theatre, Chicago
Wilson’s Vision Comes to Life
Lanford Wilson’s 1965 play Balm in Gilead has won a place in theatrical history, and has some particular connotations in Chicago. But however skilled Steppenwolf’s production was, it was years before I and most of Griffin’s cast were born, and I can only acknowledge that context while trying not to be ruled by it. Griffin Theatre has been around since 1988 and already performed two Lanford Wilson plays, and it’s interesting that they’re doing this one at the same time the Goodman is producing a play about the same era by the other Wilson. I see Griffin’s efforts as an attempt to create the production Wilson hinted at through the notes and stage directions in his script, for the appreciation of those who didn’t witness the era he described firsthand, as well as providing a different look to those who did. In the hands of director Jonathan Berry, this play avoids going for shock or muckraking, and instead observes an ecosystem of wretches with the distanced compassion of a PBS nature program.
Frank’s Diner is a de facto community center for prostitutes of all genders in a decaying section of New York. One man declares that of the twenty-eight characters, he’s the only one who’s drunk instead of high on heroin, and he’s nearly right. Set designer Dan Stratton has created a dingy, barebones restaurant that stretches nearly up to the first row of seats, and cleverly incorporates The Den’s windows to outside. Within, dozens of actors exchange overlapping banter that seems improvised, but was actually mostly written by Wilson with a careful ear for atmosphere. The conversations mostly revolve around desperate people begging equally destitute acquaintances for favors, and getting rebuffed. It’s a crowded place, and maintains a sense of danger despite the tragicomedy of one jilted lover brandishing a mere fork.
You could chose to focus on any of the conversations, but one fourth-wall breaking denizen, Dopey (Morgan Maher) directs our attention to Joe (Japhet Balaban) and Darlene (Ashleigh Lathrop). Darlene arrived a month ago from Chicago to begin her career as a prostitute, but doesn’t know that much about protocol yet. She thinks Joe is cute and takes a liking to him, which he reciprocates by teaching her a little. But he’s just made the fatally poor decision to sell heroin for Chuckles, a murderous big-shot who hates flakes, and Joe has cold feet. Both leads are quite baby-faced, and play their characters as unwittingly naïve. Not that they’re unaware they’re in a dangerous situation, but they think they can easily get out of it. Lathrop has a particularly difficult part, since Wilson subjected this character to a lot of abuse in his script by defining her in the cast description as banal and stupid, and having her give an inaccurate description of Chicago geography in a monologue that epitomizes “too long; didn’t read,” and including a footnote to make clear the mistakes were hers, not his. Lathrop rose to the occasion, though, and while Darlene isn’t somebody with enough potential to be accused of wasting it, she does seem like a perfectly nice person who you wish had made better choices. The same goes for Balaban’s Joe, who does not partake in his own stash and therefore retains more dignity than everyone around him, even though he’s in the greatest immediate danger. They’re both likable enough for us to sympathize with they’re fear for each other’s well-being.
The rest of the cast also does well in roles that are nearly always present, but only get at most one moment to stand out. There’s a song which pays tribute to heterosexual male prostitutes who go gay to satiate their drug addictions and ends with most of them forgetting the words. Later on, one of them hooks up with a drag queen and they get into an argument over who’s paying who. Ann (Cyd Blakewell), a prostitute who intended to be a teacher, worries over her absent boyfriend, and Dopey explains that the line between pimps and whores is actually hazier than commonly thought, since many women take pride in making enough money so their partners don’t have to work and can wear fancy clothes. It’s funny from a distance, but occasionally the sadness seeps through. Act one ends with Fick (Andrew Swanson), a scrawny, nearly dead addict and frequent target for muggers, begging somebody to just pretend to be his friend in hope of creating the illusion he has back-up. When the noise is cleared away, it’s less easy to ignore how much these people are hurting, which is part of why they keep it loud.
Berry says he wanted his production to create some sense of understanding of people who for all their flaws, were victims of social repression that continues today, notably homophobia and ineffective mental health and drug counseling. Balm in Gilead is a tragedy, not of individuals, but of its characters collectively. Wilson’s depiction of Frank’s inhabitants is brutal and pessimistic, though his method of breaking the fourth wall allows them some ability to make their own pleas. I’ve heard other productions were less restrained than Berry’s; perhaps that’s because he followed Wilson’s directions to make the boys’ song gentle and let Joe and Darlene keep their underwear on. People who lived through the era Lanford Wilson depicts may find it amusing to see younger artists depict it as myth instead of documentary. But for younger theatre-goers, this is a valuable chance to see a landmark play retain its vitality as it transforms from contemporary to classical.
Reviewed March 26, 20015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Balm in Gilead’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $35 with discounts for students and seniors