At Studio 58 until April 7
Posted on March 28, 2013
The despair in Balm in Gilead is enough to keep these Studio 58 student actors on the straight and narrow for the rest of their lives – not that these over-achievers are at any risk of blowing it. Under the direction of Bob Frazer, all the bushy-tailed enthusiasm of this young cast, numbering almost thirty, has been turned to the dark and dirty side in what looks like a slice right out of the DTES.
Set designer Naomi Sider completely transforms the Studio 58 theatre into a scuzzy, Main and Hastings-style all-night diner with a curved arborite bar, duct-taped patched stools and booths. The audience is seated around the periphery in booths and tables, waited on by a gum-chewing, ponytailed waitress. Soup of the day, posted on a little chalkboard, is lima bean but what’s really for sale on the premises is sex and drugs.
And where there are sex and drugs, there’s also violence – not CSI Miami-style shoot-‘em-up stuff but slow death by addiction, poverty, mental illness and being caught over your head in the drug trade.
Hookers, punks, pimps and pushers hang out here and the atmosphere is so real you can almost smell it. Costume designer Connie Hosie goes to town – eastside downtown: torn t-shirts, ripped stockings, slutty skirts and strappy stilettos on the women; ragged jean jackets, hoodies and vests, piercings and tattoos on the guys.
For the most part, Balm in Gilead is dark, scabby realism. And that’s both the strength and the weakness of Lanford Wilson’s 1965 play. Wilson was inspired by hanging around NY Upper Broadway cafes and incorporating overheard conversations directly into the piece. The result is a collection of characters stitched together with a skimpy story. By the end of Act 1, a narrative to hang your heart on has not materialized. There’s a lot of yelling, pushing, shoving, slagging and threatening; conversations overlap so you’re not really sure where to look although help is given by John Popkin’s pinpoint lighting. It’s all more real than real. But not necessarily satisfying.
Without a significant narrative, the emphasis is on performance and production. And that’s where this Balm in Gilead really shines.
Stephanie Izsak is outstanding as Ann, the teacher who couldn’t get work and turned to prostitution. It’s a leap and, frankly, not all that credible but Izsak works it like a ‘working girl.’ She sexy and sad; the whore who literally works her ass off to buy stuff for a ‘boyfriend’ (aka pimp) who sooner or later will dump her for a younger hooker with better prospects.
Darlene ((Masae Day) and Joe (Chris Cope) are the love interest but it’s hard to say whether Darlene is incredibly naïve or mentally challenged. And Joe seems equally out of place. But that’s a problem with Wilson’s script.
It’s hard to portray boredom without boring the audience. Darlene’s long, long, long monologue about her previous boyfriend is boring, boring, boring. It’s supposed to bore Ann but does it have to bore us, too?
Addicts in various stages of highs and lows are realistically presented by Dallas Sauer, Maxamillian Wallace and a host of others who nod off, jerk and tremble, babble or talk at high speed. It’s hard to take your eyes off Julie Leung as bruised and track-marked heroin addict Babe who fixes right there at the counter. The whole thing is loosely pulled together by Dopey, a narrator of sorts, nicely understated by Patrick Mercado.
Balm in Gilead has Old Testament roots: “In vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured.” These down-and-outers are all looking for their next fix and the heroin, cocaine, uppers and downers they seek are definitely not the cure. Fix and cure are, in some cases synonymous but not in this exuberant but cautionary tale.