On my way up the steep staircase at Den Theatre, I was concerned for this drunk man on his way down. His eyes were half closed. He took each step with the focused deliberateness of the walking trashed. I wondered what had happened to this man until later when he stumbled into Frank’s Diner. I realized the trashed guy is an actor…in the show. And Matt Rockwood plays inebriated with disturbing believability.
Director Jonathan Berry masterfully orchestrates Lanford Wilson’s world of chaos. The action is nonstop as 31 actors and musicians frequent this 24-hour cafe in New York city. Set Designer Dan Stratton constructs the perfect 1960s diner. The turquoise booths and matching stools, the checkered floor, the dangling light fixtures, all have a worn authenticity. Stratton creates a sidewalk in front of the diner so Berry can stage simultaneous indoor-outdoor happenings. He even utilizes the windows of The Den Theatre as part of his streetscape. The real life sounds of Milwaukee Avenue add to this virtual experience.
BALM IN GILEAD was Wilson’s first full-length play. And it premiered in 1965. Berry’s superb ensemble make this show more performing art than story. And Costume Designer Mieka Van der Ploeg dresses the hookers, addicts, R&B singers, drunks, and pushers in 1960s vintage chic. This hodge-podge of regulars at Frank’s create their own make-shift community. They maintain a casual but informed acquaintance. When newcomer Darlene (played by Ashleigh Lathrop) arrives at the establishment, she tries to make a stronger connection with Japhet Balaban (Joe). Because he has some deals brewing, Balaban initially resists. The equally hopeful and resigned Lathrop eventually coaxes him to step out of his frenzied world.
Berry’s colorful direction left me gawking in all directions. Life is happening all around us. As conversations overlap with turmoil in every corner, the charismatic Morgan Maher (Dopey) helps focus our attention on the main story between Lathrop and Balaban. It’s not an easy task in this mayhem spectacle. I continually watch a stoned Joanne Duback (Babe) precariously perched on a barstool. Playing a junkie, Duback is this mesmerizing train wreck. At different points, she looks like she is on the verge of saying something but can’t find the words. Duback is a heart-wrenching facade of a person. And she is literally one of the thirty-one dynamic stories vying for our attention. The people-watching is like channel surfing reality shows. Every where I look is drama drama drama.
Lathrop and Balaban do manage to get some alone time. Berry stages the tryst behind the human wall of the ensemble. The shift in tempo is a drastic change from the diner. The intimacy and lack of noise makes Balaban edgy and Lathrop nervous. As Balaban gets more and more skittish, Lathrop’s rambling increases. She punctuates the awkward silent pauses with schoolgirl giggling. Later back in the diner, the outstanding Lathrop delivers an earnest monologue of candy-coated misery.
As Cyd Blakewell, the tough-talking hooker, listens to Lathrop’s lengthy soliloquy, her hardened face visibly softens. Besides this noteworthy moment of vulnerability, the coiffed and unflappable Blakewell also shows a hint of insecurity after a rough encounter with a john. Blakewell’s hair is mussed. Her lipstick smeared. And she is preoccupied with straightening her belt. She tries to distract the diner folk from her desperation by rattling on about her earnings.
BALM IN GILEAD isn’t one big story. It’s a lot of little stories. Stories of discarded people trying to escape the reality of a dismissed life. Berry gives all 31 of his talented cast an opportunity to tell their story in inconsequential yet significant ways. It’s the challenge of the audience to take in as many stories as we can experience. I’d like to occupy a booth at Frank’s to see the show from a different angle. I’d sip on my 50 cent coffee to go with this delectably seedy slice of life.
Running Time: Two hours includes an intermission
At The Den Theatre,1329-1333 N. Milwaukee
Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Jonathan Berry
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru April 19th
Buy Tickets at www.griffintheatre.com
Photo by Michael Brosilow
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