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STAGE REVIEW : A TENUOUS CONNECTION OF ‘TUMBLEWEED’ IMAGES

Times Theater Critic

Are images enough to make a good play? Here are some striking ones from Adele Edling Shank’s “Tumbleweed” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center:

1. A married woman with two children sitting on the floor of her parents’ vacant house, playing her old records and pretending to be a teen-ager.

2. Two Chicano burglars rifling a house for the 10th or 15th time, careful, as ever, not to take the good china--they don’t want the owners to throw in the towel and move away.

3. A roast-turkey dinner served on the blackened ruins of the above-mentioned house--candles, lace tablecloth, grace before the meal, the whole works.

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The best image of all was that of the burning house. All that we saw, literally, were four or five stagehands dismantling Karl Eigsti’s set. But we saw them in silhouette, against a sullen red background (Eigsti also did the lighting) to the sound of crunching flames (by sound designer Jon Gottlieb).

There was something almost Japanese in the spareness of the image. Yet the illusion of a firestorm was there, and the audience broke into delighted applause--as opposed to the polite applause that followed the play itself.

For “Tumbleweed” is a play that doesn’t come across. The reason, I think, is that you don’t believe the story. This is the sixth and last of Shank’s “California plays,” and once again her imagery evokes the strange, unmoored quality of life in the West (not just California.) At its best, “Tumbleweed” suggests one of Sam Shepard’s “family” plays (“The Curse of the Starving Class,” for instance), where we see what an artificial construct the family is--strangers under one roof, any of whom may move on tomorrow.

The group examined here are all strangers to each other, whether related or not. The place is an agricultural valley in Southern California. Vying for possession of this dumb little house are the white farmers that built it (Bette Ford, Frank McCarthy, Ruth Manning, Margaret Klenck); the Chicanos who tilled the earth for them (Rudy Ramos, Michael De Lorenzo) and a hippy couple who seem to have wandered in from the 1960s (Gregory Wagrowski, Ann Hearn.)

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The hippies win--or, rather, the wife does--and the old pioneering cycle begins again. As always, it is based on force and stealth, as well as nerve. We pray for the strength to love our enemies, but what we really want is the guts to get the stranger off our land.

Thematically, this is excellent, and the acting under the direction of the playwright’s husband, Theodore, would have been adequate enough to get us from point A to point Z, had Shank provided the proper connections. She does not, and the play seems as arbitrary in its movements as tumbleweed itself.

It would be tiresome to list a full bill of particulars, but the story simply doesn’t jibe, starting with the very first scene, where the two burglars hole up in a closet when they hear someone coming, rather than dashing out the back door.

Later we’re supposed to believe that a hippie who is sophisticated enough to turn complicated drug deals doesn’t know enough to put down a fake Social Security card on a job application at McDonald’s. If that seems picky, here’s a larger question: How come the sheriff’s office never shows any curiosity about the habitual burglaries by the two Chicanos (to the point where the audience figures they are burglarizing every home in the valley without opposition), yet suddenly slaps one of them into jail when the family house burns down--something that could have been an accident?

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The little things and the big things add up to incredulity. The final image is striking--but in terms of the story offered us, you couldn’t get there from here. Shepard’s plays have their logic problems, too, but his dialogue and characters are vigorous enough to override them. Shank’s writing is astute, but lacks that kind of propulsion. She needs coherence, and doesn’t find it here.

The funny thing is that she doubtless has answers for all the holes in the script, or could come up with them, if challenged. One wonders why she hasn’t been. LATC has a dramaturgy department: Isn’t asking the dumb logical questions that audiences do ask one of the dramaturge’s functions?

‘TUMBLEWEED’

Adele Edling Shank’s play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Theodore Shank. Producer Diane White. Set and lighting Karl Eigsti. Costumes Nicole Morin. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Dramaturg Mame Hunt. Production stage manager Donald David Hill. With Rudy Ramos, Michael De Lorenzo, Ruth Manning, Ann Hearn, Gregory Wagrowski, Margaret Klenck, Bette Ford and Frank McCarthy. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes April 26. Tickets $10-$20. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-5599.

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