Thursday, June 14, 2007
The opening scene of Foreign Women offers, on the altar of Carl Cherry Center’s tiny theater, the tantalizing promise of characters we are prepared to care about. A few rows of folding chairs fill a small, stark waiting room—the paycheck-advance office of Holden Financial Services, an organization whose disembodied pronouncements reverborate from a loudspeaker, though only two people are waiting.
They have apparently been waiting a very long time. The woman finally comes forward to complain. “Applicants must remain seated,” announces the voice. It becomes clear that the barrier between the applicants and the Holden Financial Services representative is directly between the players and the audience. In this way, almost immediately, a very intimate eye-to-eye bond is forged between the tellers of the story and those who have come to hear it.
The disembodied female voice continues to call names so mangled as to be unrecognizable, repeating names of people obviously not in the room. The young woman barely controls her nervous heel-tapping when the young man offers her a cigarette. The voice instantly reminds the two that “Holden Financial Services is a smoke-free environment.”
Then the voice booms “Can Dance” and “Candace,” with a few cynical retorts, leaves the room to collect her loan money. The voice then informs the young man he’s been turned down for a loan. The audience learns he’s just been released from the Youth Authority and begun a welding apprenticeship. He pleads for an advance on his first paycheck in a soliloquy delivered directly to the audience a few feet away in the darkness. The disembodied voice, still stentorian, responds that her brother had been in that YA “hell hole” and that she’d lend him the money, not as Holden Financial Services, but as a personal loan.
• • •
The young man, Aaron (Greg Falge), is composed, sincere and self-reflective as if he has undergone years of therapy. Candace (Lillie Morrisson) is hard-shelled, bitingly witty and lovely.
The players are completely abandoned to their roles—we already are bound to them after those intimate moments of eye contact. The scene has been engaging, humorous and expository. But that disembodied loan—it was a miracle of the first order, challenging audience credulity a lot for the first scene. Is this, then, to be a fairytale?
Between this early moment of doubt and an implausible ending an intermission-free 90 minutes away, there are more than a dozen short scenes in which four highly accomplished actors unravel a knotted tale of two sets of siblings abused in childhood finding each his or her own way to live with the past.
The direction, by Dan Gotch, is impeccable. The tiny stage is dressed simply, using minimal props and clever back-projected slides to create the waiting room, the interior of a small apartment, a bar, a park. The actors engage their space fully, interact with each other believably and speak their lines with conviction, even in soliloquy.
Greg Falge as Aaron is at the center of every scene, charismatic as a young man who has spent most of his life in institutions and now lives with his sister. Perhaps he is a bit, well, nice, but through dialogue with his sister, Mary (a very assured Eliza Swords), the audience learns the family secrets and becomes privy to what might be his survival technique: a kind of passionless earnestness.
His sister asks how he survived without women all these years of incarceration? Women just seemed so foreign that he forgot about them. When he and Candace become involved, there is virtually no sexual chemistry between them, she encosed in her very hard shell and he so confused. The audience is asked to believe in a passion we can’t feel. The backstory has carved out just enough of a reason for this that we are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.
But the script lets them down repeatedly—in that “Huh?” moment with the loan, and again during some heavy lifting the characters must do in the second scene when Aaron and his sister must tell the story of their childhood in a conversation as though they have never talked about it before. And the door-knocking evangelical duo (the wonderfully smug and high-minded Elizabeth, played to the hilt by Molly May) “come to deliver God’s plan” to Aaron but, along with some humor, deliver the play’s most unlikely coincidence.
Local playwright Alston James has wrangled a difficult and important topic, birthed some extraordinary characters and imaginative dialogue, but undermines his own creations. The play’s dramatic denouement doesn’t follow the logic of his characters: those whom he has so skillfully created are cruelly abandoned by their creator. Is this, then, God’s plan?
FOREIGN WOMEN continues at the Carl Cherry Center of the Arts, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel, through June 30. 7:30pm Fridays, Saturdays; 2pm Sundays. $15-$20. 236-3295.