Chicago Theatre Review
Junkies and Pushers and Hookers, Oh My!
Balm in Gilead = Griffin Theatre
Lanford Wilson’s first full-length play, written back in 1965 when the young playwright was living in New York City, became his signature masterwork. It’s culled from transcripts of actual conversations he heard taking place in various Manhattan cafes. The play is unusual because in it Wilson has combined several storylines connecting the lives of a number of different characters. Several discussions occur simultaneously. They rise and fall, overlap and finally dissolve into heated arguments or stony periods of silence. Wilson’s fictional coffee shop is a tacky, rundown dive that’s become the gathering place for Upper Broadway’s strung-out junkies, aggressive drug pushers, prostitutes of both genders and their respective pimps and johns. All the denizens of this Gilead are overseen by Frank, the All-Knowing cafe owner, who’s ever available to dispense cursory advice and coffee, the universal balm for those who overindulge.
Jonathan Berry directs this production with care and a generous amount of trust, encouraging his massive ensemble of young actors to engage in nonstop improvisation and interaction. He keeps the production realistic and honest, while still employing just enough theatricality, as the need arises. Dopey, played with engaging brashness by Morgan Maher, is a young, streetwise vendor, named more for his trade than his demeanor. He’s the narrator of this play, often halting the cacophony of sound and action focusing for us on a particular pair of characters or an important conversation. He even has the power to rewind and play back certain dramatic moments, giving Dopey an almost ethereal ability. He’s also fond, like several of the other characters, of breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience.
Other characters who stand out in this fascinating production include Ashleigh Lathrop as Darlene, the somewhat naive Big Apple transplant from Chicago, who guardedly confesses that, as a hooker, she’s trying to follow in her sister’s footsteps. During Act II, Ms. Lathrop delivers a 20-minute monologue, which amounts to a sunny, conversational examination of one confused young woman who only wants to become part of someone’s life. As Darlene rambles on and on, the real show is happening on the face of Ann, an older hooker who feigns interest in the story the young newbie is spinning. She’s played with great skill and likable humor by Cyd Blakewell.
Japhet Balaban plays Joe, the good-looking young drug dealer who’s deep in debt with someone named Chuckles. Joe finds Darlene very appealing and the two eventually hook up, but their connection is short-lived. Mr. Balaban is a compelling actor who has no trouble attracting and keeping the audience’s attention. The only trouble is that the actor is almost too clean cut and respectable to be totally convincing in the role.
Although it’s often difficult to match character names with the 28+ actors playing them, other standout performances come from Joanne Dubach, as Babe, the stoned-out-of-her-mind barstool dweller; Gabe Franken, playing a heavily-sedated guy who’s too far gone to be able to score the next hit he so desperately needs; Adam Shalzi as Martin, a frantic, sad young junkie who badly requires a fix; Armand Fields as Franny, the transsexual prositute who won’t take crap from anyone; and Johnny Moran is solid as Frank, a middle-age barista just trying to run a business, but tired of the troublemakers constantly challenging him. Special mention must be made of the talented a cappella African American trio who frequently appear outside the cafe, comprised of Tyshaun Lang, Aaron Mitchell and Denzel Tsopnang.
Dan Stratton’s realistic coffee house setting creatively uses the Den Theatre’s bare windows as a backdrop for this production. Mieka VanderPloeg’s costumes feel suitably grungy, yet authentic and appropriate for the mid-1960’s. Lee Fiskness and Matthew Chapman’s light and sound design enhance Stratton’s scenic design and help the audience focus.
This is a wonderful, ambitious production of a challenging play, difficult for both the director and his cast. But Jonathan Berry has molded his large ensemble of talented, young actors and created an environment filled with sad, interesting, desperate characters, all of whom are seeking the necessary balm to make it through another night in this Gilead.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 22-April 19 by Griffin Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-769-2228 or by going to www.griffintheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.