Plays prescient and not so prescient

buchenwald-46.jpgBen Martin, Laura James, Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera in "Walking to Buchenwald." Photo by Darrett Sanders.

In two remarkable new plays, same-sex Angeleno couples are traveling with their parents or other older relatives in uncomfortable circumstances. But the discomfort has nothing to do with whether the older travel companions accept the same-sex couplings. Within these families, that acceptance is a given.

As its title indicates, Tom Jacobson's "Walking to Buchenwald" tackles much bigger topics. The Holocaust reference is, if anything, too specific. Jacobson's play resonates uncannily in the current political climate, in which so much attention is again focusing on the possibility of a nuclear-based catastrophe. This is all the more surprising when you learn that the play actually was written more than a decade ago, as the U.S. launched its campaign to find and destroy Iraq's ostensible weapons of mass destruction. Still, Jacobson never mentions George W. Bush or Iraq, just as he never mentions Donald Trump or North Korea.

No, his play's wider concern is the awkward position of 21st-century Americans, now so worried about nuclear posturing when in fact the U.S. is the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons in warfare.

That might sound like too much territory to cover in a play that initially seems like a somewhat light-hearted comedy. The LA couple Schiller and Arjay, veterans of many foreign trips, decide to introduce Schiller's aging Oklahoma-based parents to Western Europe -- England, France, Germany. Because the parents are examples of a rare species -- liberals in Oklahoma -- the comedy arises not from any gay-straight collisions but rather from the differences in travel preferences and habits that might accompany any cross-generational quartet of traveling companions.

This interplay is fun for a while, but fortunately Jacobson gradually and subtly raises the stakes and expands the range of the play's themes. First, before we get to the existential crises mentioned above, his characters' conversations also embrace such topics as the roles of museums (Schiller is a museum executive) and theater (Schiller's father is a retired theater professor) -- which reflect Jacobson's twin professional interests. Then suddenly, a potential bombshell appears on the horizon.

Another unusual aspect of the play is that the roles of the same-sex partners can be cast with two women or two men. In the premiere, directed by Roderick Menzies for Open Fist Theatre at the Atwater Village Theatre, women and men alternate in the two roles. I saw the women (Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera), but I would also like to return to Atwater to see the two men (Christopher Cappiello and Justin Huen). Laura James and Ben Martin are delightful as Schiller's parents, and Will Bradley is a skilled chameleon in a half-dozen roles as the varied individuals this group encounters in Europe.

Is it all too much? No, non, nein. Jacobson tempers his vaulting ambitions with a light touch. At one point, the retired theater professor mentions how the Greek playwrights usually avoided front-and-center displays of violence, and Jacobson follows their example. Instead of shock and awe, he adds eerie uncertainty to his light-comic ingredients. The results are perfectly in tune with the mood of many of his fellow Americans right now.

Rachel Bonds' "Curve of Departure," at South Coast Repertory, features another same-sex couple from LA, Felix and Jackson. They're in Santa Fe to attend a funeral, sharing a two-bed motel room with Felix's mother and with his late father's father. Felix's recently deceased dad was estranged from all of them, preferring the new family that he had started in New Mexico. But the trio has nevertheless arrived to pay their token respects, accompanied by Jackson, Felix's LA boyfriend.

We soon learn that Jackson has some challenging demands from within his own family back in Bakersfield -- he's the temporary guardian of a two-year-old niece. Meanwhile, Felix's aging grandfather needs more and more help, and Felix's mother is considering ditching her teaching career to become her father-in-law's caregiver.

The racial and ethnic mix in this quartet in the motel room is extremely diverse, but any issues stemming from that fact are barely mentioned, about on the same level as the same-sex-couple issues. Instead, Bonds concentrates on a realistic depiction of this family at the intersection of these pressing situations, laced with a few gently lyrical passages that are likely to open tear ducts. Mike Donahue's staging, exemplary even by South Coast's high standards, features Kim Staunton, Larry Powell, Christian Barillas and Allan Miller.

By the way, for LA Observed readers I should note that the forgetful but still-articulate grandfather (Miller, wonderful in the role) is a staunch advocate of New York City, often at the expense of LA. When he praises New York's "secret pockets" that aren't immediately visible, Jackson replies that he has never thought of LA in that way. Actually, many observers over the decades have remarked on how so many of LA's attractions are under-the-radar. I've often thought of LA as generally less public than New York. But that was the only exchange in the play that rang even slightly false.

Grover's Corners, USA, North America

Our_Town_0236-1200x800.jpgSpeaking of our town, Pasadena Playhouse has mounted a new revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in collaboration with Deaf West Theatre. Naturally, it's ASL-infused in the distinctive Deaf West style, which should now be familiar to most LA theatergoers. The addition of ASL almost always manages to highlight previously unexplored nuances in a classic script. That's certainly true of Sheryl Kaller's lustrously designed staging of the American theater's most important and beloved non-realistic, non-musical play.

On opening night just about everything flowed smoothly except for Jane Kaczmarek's performance as the voice of the narrating Stage Manager. Although she brought a sturdy and congenial personality to the role, she bobbled a few lines, and I wondered if it was attributable to the fact that she was doing a little ASL signing herself, in addition to her spoken words. Several professional Deaf West-trained actors also interpreted the Stage Manager's lines in ASL, so it didn't seem necessary for Kaczmarek to divide her attention between speaking and signing.

As is common now with "Our Town," the Pasadena cast is racially diverse, the better to bring the play home to contemporary audiences who might not have felt welcome in a small town in New Hampshire a century ago. But it's not quite as multi-culti as the cast I saw just six days later, in another production of "Our Town," at a tiny black box in north Chicago. In this Redtwist Theatre production, as the audience sits around the perimeter of the room, the teen-aged lover George Gibbs is played by an actor described as "gender-fluid" in a local review. The gossipy and emotional Mrs. Soames is played by a black man, and the milkman's mechanized wheelchair serves as his horse-drawn vehicle. The Stage Manager is played by an actor described as "hearing-impaired," who signs and also uses his own voice, which was completely comprehensible, although he sounded as if he had a slight accent of unknown origin. It was an utterly charming "Our Town," but after seeing Pasadena's, I did wonder if ASL-reading audience members would feel slighted in the Chicago version, because only the Stage Manager appeared to be signing his lines.

Stormy stages

In the wake of recent hurricanes, it's easy to conclude that the programmers of the Mark Taper Forum and Fountain Theatre might have been prescient in choosing to produce plays, during the usual hurricane season, about big storms in Louisiana.

head-of-passes.jpgThe Taper and director Tina Landau are staging Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Head of Passes," in which the dying Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) is honored at a birthday party, only to be plunged into Job-like horrors that leave her alone in her slowly flooding home, providing Rashad with a platform to emote like crazy as she tries to converse with the Lord. The Fountain is producing Jeremy J. Kamps' "Runaway Home," directed by Shirley Jo Finney, in which a teenager runs away from home three years after Katrina, amid the still devastated precincts of the 9th Ward. Neither script is great; both could have benefited from additional rewrites.

But I'd like to raise a subject that concerns me more than the merits of either play. The recent hurricanes certainly were made worse by the warming of the ocean water due to climate change. Yet many of our putative leaders are either sticking their heads in the mud or actively taking steps to weaken the battle against climate change. If we're going to see plays about big storms, shouldn't the playwrights clearly focus on this current crisis, not on God's or Shelah's culpability ("Head of Passes") or even on individuals coping with the failures of our recovery efforts ("Runaway Home")? Surely we have playwrights who would know how to dramatize the potentially esoteric subject of climate change in human terms, illustrating how it's causing disasters for, say, Puerto Ricans.

That son of Puerto Ricans, Lin-Manuel Miranda, released a music video for Puerto Rican relief last about a new musical?

More by Don Shirley:
Previous blog post: Moon Festival
Next blog post: A salute to Anacleto Rapping, photographer
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed