Thursday, November 18, 1999
"Escuchame. Listen to me." This is a phrase repeated often in Looking for Words, a new work by Salinas playwright Michael Roddy currently playing at the Western Stage in Salinas. If you are willing to listen-and listen you must with this show-then go down to the theater, sit patiently in your seat, and listen. Or, rather, stand in line and hope a ticketholder doesn''t show up, because the show, which ends this weekend, is sold-out. If you get in, you will not be disappointed. Watching this play is, as Roddy asserts, a chance to "exercise the spirit."
Ostensibly, the play is about a family dealing with the ravages of Alzheimer''s disease. Daughter Angela (Jani Davis) arrives home for a rare visit and is shocked to find that her mother, Emily (Maria-Elena Cordero), has deteriorated dramatically as a result of the illness. Her father, David (Leonard Maestas), a retired doctor, is Emily''s main caregiver.
Angela is faced with the pain and guilt of watching her mother, once an articulate woman, struggle to communicate even the simplest needs. Emily is always "looking for words." But so is everyone else in this family. Angela struggles to find the words to communicate her hurt, rage, and love to a father whose past drinking rent holes in the fabric of their family. David uses language as a kind of incantation to conjure, and correct the past. Perhaps, through language, he might be able to talk Emily back to her former self, and make Angela forgive him his sins.
Emily experiences language as a stranger. She tastes each word, or nonsense syllable, as though for the first time: What does it mean? What is its form? What is its power? Only the ghost of storyteller Jose Angel (Bill Ereneta), Angela''s grandfather, understands both the power, and limitations, of the spoken word. His stories, comments, and parables, juxtaposed with the family''s fractured attempts to reach out to each other, try to convey the power of the silence that lies beneath everything we say. As David says, "Surgery is so much easier."
In Looking for Words, according to Roddy, Alzheimer''s becomes a metaphor for our collective struggle with language and communication. And, although his personal experiences with Alzheimer''s inspired this story, Roddy also cites poet Octavio Paz as a powerful influence in the development of his theme. In his poem "Flame," Paz explores the uniquely human aspect of speech: "Language is the house of all, hanging over the edge of the abyss. To talk is human."
Time is also an important thread that winds through Looking for Words. The drama is played out against a haunting paean to Dali''s painting, "The Persistence of Memory" (by scenic designer Andy Scrimger) which seems to hover in back and just above the set. As Jose Angel says, "We are migrating souls." What has come before us? What will come after? What do we leave behind? The music (Michael Lee Pinder) expresses the passage of time by traversing from traditional Mexican tunes to modern electronic and acoustic arrangements.
The performances were largely centered, although, in the beginning, somewhat raw. Partly this was due to the rapid transitions required of the performers. At the start, Angela isn''t given enough time to fully digest, deny, and react to her mother''s condition. As a result, we are catapulted into the dynamics of the story with little warning. Nevertheless, the actors soon found a rhythm that matched the utterly beautiful language of this play.
It is impossible to touch on all of the layers of Roddy''s sophisticated and often difficult drama. It is not for the faint of heart. We have a tendency to treat theater as live television or cinema. We sit back and let the experience wash over us, and expect to put forth very little effort for our evening''s entertainment. But at its core, theater is a communal event, and its magic lies in the collective experience of audience and artists (technical and otherwise) unique to a particular place and time. To reach the deeper layers in Looking for Words the audience must work. It is worth the effort.
Looking for Words closes Sunday.