STAGE REVIEWS : No Ready Answers to Be Found in Gritty 'Lower Depths'

The Professional Actors Conservatory's gritty update of Maxim Gorky's "Lower Depths" underlines the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Gorky's angry probe of urban poverty in pre-revolutionary Russia has been heaved into the present by the Rancho Santiago College troupe as an indictment against Los Angeles' homeless problem.

This ambitious reworking has sting. A reminder of Santayana's warning that we are doomed to repeat history if we don't learn from it, the production is dynamic with implications of social responsibility and morality. Like the homelessness dilemma itself, this "Lower Depths" does not provide any ready answers: It is sad, scary, disturbing and, ultimately, frustrating.

But it does make you think. And feel. Director Phillip Beck sees to that, with help from a mostly able cast and Paul Porter's grimy, uncivilized set of a county-run squatters' yard.

Beck gives an unsentimental, hard-as-a-whiskey-bottle look at a closed society of unrepentant drunks, roaring psychotics and ragged vagabonds whose world is a patch of government land under a freeway overpass, a submerged, out-of-the-public-eye commune where home is a cardboard box laid out on a dirt floor.

Some of these vagrants plan getaways to better lives, others just get by on booze and rants against fate. They're all lorded over by Lisa (Lisa Jimas) and Michael (Jim McClain), the managers of the yard, who exploit and abuse as easily as they breathe.

Among their targets: "the Senator" (Kevin Jones), a violent alcoholic who may or may not have been a state senator before his fall; Nastya (Wendi DeBarros), a tattered hooker who forgets the squalor, at least temporarily, by reading romance novels; Satin (Curtis Rhodes), a combative homosexual who was in prison for killing his lover; Vance (Mario Manno), a petty thief locked in a destructive relationship with Lisa; and Luka (Denise Randol), an idealistic wanderer who both enrages and inspires everyone with her search for a higher good.

The characters' interactions intimate the ways the disenfranchised survive not only daily deprivation, but the sapping boredom that comes from feeling useless. One way is through an anger that explodes each morning. Fury keeps these people alive: There is something life-affirming in their rage, one of the only things that is theirs alone.

The drama is less meaty in revealing what has brought them to this place. We want to know more about the senator, a former patrician who "had breakfast in bed every day" and how he sank so far. And what of "the actress"? From stage performer to drug addict to homeless bum--why did that happen? The sensitivity of Cynthia Merrill's portrayal gives hints about a psyche too easily bruised, but the script doesn't let her go much further.

Another problem: "Lower Depths" moves jerkily in its main plot thread involving Lisa, Michael, Vance and Trisha (Glynna Goff), Lisa's sister whom Vance loves. The obvious trouble between Lisa and Vance over Trisha and a subtext in which Lisa pushes Vance to murder Michael create a murkiness that takes "Lower Depths" too many fathoms down.

Still, the play has impact. One of three student repertory offerings (with Paul Zindel's "Ladies at the Alamo" and J. M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton") in PAC's inaugural season, "Lower Depths" is a conscionable first step.

'LOWER DEPTHS' A Rancho Santiago College Professional Actors Conservatory production of Maxim Gorky's drama. Directed by Phillip Beck. With Kevin Jones, April Yee, Nancy Smeets, Sean McDevitt, Wendi DeBarros, Kathy Risk, Curtis Rhodes, Cynthia Merrill, Jim McClain, Mario Manno, Denise Randol, Glynna Goff, Danny Oberbeck, Lisa Jimas, Brent Metken, Connie Misen and Carmen Garduno. Set by Paul Porter. Lighting by Larry Oberman. Plays Jan. 31 at 2:30 p.m. and Feb. 3, 6, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. at Phillips Hall, West 17th and North Bristol streets, Santa Ana. Tickets: $5 and $4. (714) 667-3163.

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