Times Theater Writer

It’s been 11 years since the Mark Taper Forum first introduced us to David Rudkin’s “Ashes,” and six since the last local mounting of it on a professional stage (at South Coast Repertory)--yet this unsettling, acerbic play wears better and better.

In its latest incarnation at the Zephyr Theatre, we are struck again by the depth and irony of the writing and the sadness of the situation. The reaction is enhanced by the lean and pointed staging it receives at the hands of director/producer Bradley White and his cast: Mark Lindsay Chapman and Deborah Turcotte as the stirring and unsentimentalized Colin and Anne, mysteriously infertile and trying desperately to have a child; Gene Ross and Rita Wilson playing a string of faceless doctors, therapists, social workers, etc.

It’s a difficult piece--to perform and to watch--filled with the graphic medical excess this couple is put through to achieve what comes naturally to others. But if the play dwells on step-by-step clinical humiliation--doctor-ordered masturbation, testing of sperm count (not high enough), temperature-taking, cold baths and sex on command--the mental torture is more subtle and insidious. Is it Anne’s fault they can’t conceive? Colin’s? Is it physical incompatibility or metaphysical punishment for Colin’s bisexuality?


White understands the wryness and slow devastation in Rudkin’s script. Like life, the play is predicated on staggering contrasts. Its central players are undone by random capriciousness: While Colin and Anne struggle desperately to conceive and are unable to, multitudes of others, who’d rather not, are unable to prevent it.

This ranges from the unquenchable fecundity of their close friends to the routine news of a day-old baby abandoned in a public lavatory, to the half-formed thing Anne finds in her morning egg--just as she herself is barely hanging on to the fetus her body has finally been able tortuously to produce.

The moment is pure horror and Turcotte’s frazzled and exasperated Anne conveys its full grotesquerie. When she loses the baby that has been signaling for some time that it wouldn’t be saved, the womb goes with it. So goes all hope. Hysteria is the only sane response. What else, after months of shredded privacy, creeping self-doubt, destructive sacrifice and stupid questions? (“Why are you killing your husband’s sperm?” is one of them.)

Ah, but life is unrelenting. Even attempts at adoption are infertile. The nay-saying is a form of terminal impotence--a massacre of unproductivity that Rudkin quite successfully connects to the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Colin lives in England but is a Belfast lad who returns briefly for a funeral and is struck by the infertility of the struggle there and the waste of all the death and dying.

Rudkin is a poet with a line, and the play both benefits and suffers from the profusion. They are, yes, beautiful and the piece is, yes, wordy. Be prepared--also for the unnerving repetitiousness of some of the clinical sequences. “Ashes” is a richly layered play that makes its audience work for every point and earn all of its rewards.

The affecting performances at the Zephyr, the moderately uncomfortable seating and sightlines, the simplicity and sharpness of White’s staging, the unobtrusive addition of a musical thread by U2 (an unabused touch), the barrenness of the stage and the antiseptic white light and white blocks of furniture (setting is by Scott Storey, lights by Michelle Colbert) all conspire to provide an intense and unsparing experience. Only those willing to submit need apply.

Performances at 7456 Melrose Ave. run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 7:30 p.m., until Aug. 9. Tickets: $13-$15; (213) 466-1767.