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vancouverplays review


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— Chirag Naik as Fick (facing) and William Ford Hopkins as Tig. Photo credit: David Cooper

by Lanford Wilson
Studio 58, Langara College
Mar. 21-April 7
$22/$19/$17/$12 or 604-684-2787

It’s springtime, end of term time, time to see what the acting students about to graduate from Vancouver’s post-secondary theatre programs are up to. Capilano University, with its emphasis on musical theatre, is staging The Boy Friend. On at UBC is Sharon Pollock’s Canadian classic, Blood Relations. But our lesson for today, class, will be American playwright Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, showcasing 27 of the young thespians studying at Langara’s Studio 58.

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— Stephanie Izsak as Ann. Photo credit: David Cooper

Choosing plays for a college or university season means finding scripts that give everyone in the class something meaningful to do, matching up roles and actors by gender (always difficult since female acting students generally outnumber males while most plays have a majority of male parts), and finding plays that don’t force too many of the students to act outside their age range. Balm in Gilead meets all those requirements.

Set in an all-night cafe in a gritty neighbourhood, Wilson’s play follows a cross-section of young locals over the course of a few nights. First produced off-off-Broadway in 1965 at New York City’s experimental Cafe La Mama, its style might be called theatrical verité. Except in a couple of instances it gives us not so much the characters’ stories as the texture of their lives. The writing is intentionally undramatic and mundane, as if it were a documentary.

Although Balm in Gilead takes place in New York nearly fifty years ago, director Bob Frazer argues in the program that its characters could as easily be found today in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. And he’s right. Costume designer Connie Hosie has dressed the cast in contemporary clothes to underline the point.

The difficulty here is creating the feel of documentary realism with shiny young, clean-cut, mostly middle-class Vancouver kids whose are so far removed from the hookers, junkies, street people and hustlers they’re playing, and when much of the audience is seated directly among them at the tables and booths of Naomi Sider’s set.

It’s one thing to act the heroin withdrawal shakes when you’re up on stage and the audience is out there. It’s another to make someone sitting next to you believe you’ve got the Jones dancing on your bones. To the cast’s and director Frazer’s credit, most of the actors makes that stretch pretty credibly.

The  other challenge for the audience is following the dialogue, which often overlaps in two or three parts of the stage at once. Here Frazer manages to focus our attention on what matters most. You do miss some of the dialogue, depending where you’re seated. But you also get used to the clamour, which is like real life.

The minimal plot revolves around Joe (Chris Cope), a small-time drug dealer who has gotten in way too deep with the brutal local supplier, and his relationship with naive Darlene (Masae Day), the new girl in town, who also befriends hooker Ann (Stephanie Izsak). Cope is good, Day and Iszak better. At one point Darlene rattles on about her life back in Chicago and the guy she almost married, a long monologue both poignant and painfully banal, while Ann listens half fascinated, half wanting to run away. Day rocks the scene and Izsak nearly steals it.

Other notable performances come from Patrick Mercado as Dopey, the play’s narrator, Erik Gow as the put-upon cafe manager, and Chirag Naik as a heroin addict with compulsive twitches who wonders what it would be like to have friends who could keep him from getting beaten up.

Erica Hoeksema and Jessica Ross-Howkins beautifully sing the African-American spiritual of the title, about “mak[ing] the wounded whole.” It’s fascinating to see how many of these young actors are able to achieve that.

-- Jerry Wasserman