STAGE REVIEW : Science Takes On Humanism in Mark Handley's 'Idioglossia'

Times Theater Writer

Don't be put off by the title.

"Idioglossia" is a cumbersome word that explains an unusual concept. Don't run to Webster's or Random House or the American Heritage. You won't find it there. Dorland's medical dictionary defines idioglossia as "imperfect articulation with the utterance of meaningless vowel sounds." Playwright Mark Handley creates his own definition as "a language developed in a situation of isolation."

In Handley's play by that name, which opened over the weekend at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles, it also means a language that no one, except its inventor, is able to understand. And while it's a bit puzzling, a little off-putting at first, it soon becomes mesmerizing.

The situation is simple: A woman living as a hermit in a mountain cabin dies of a stroke. In the back room is found another, younger woman, presumably her daughter, who apparently has never been out of the cabin, much less seen or spoken with another human being. She speaks no English, but she does speak something-- a curious, confounding language of her own.

Researchers are ecstatic, especially T. C. (Audree Chapman), a dedicated psychologist who entices her colleague and sometime lover, Jake (Paul Lieber), to work on this unique case with her.

Jake, who is going through a career crisis, rejects the notion at first, then shows up out of curiosity, embraces the situation and is finally brought to his knees by it.

The solitary voice of reason here is that of a third researcher, Claud (Patricia Huston), who mediates not only the fierce battles between science (T. C.) and humanism (Jake), but between still deeper notions of right and wrong.

Jake is eventually able to find out the wild woman's name. It's Nell, and he promptly dubs the language she speaks as Nellish. Having deciphered it, Jake embarks on teaching Nell English. She's bright. She learns fast. She's even able to read in a more conceptive sense than we do: taking in the patterns of whole pages.

Jake is thunderstruck. Nell's uncluttered mind is an object of pure wonder, capable of complex original thought. He falls hopelessly in love. Original thought meets original sin.

That's the start of trouble--dramaturgical as well as situational. As long as Handley's play concerns itself with Nell (actress Beth Hogan turns in a stunning performance) the play is on high ground: amazing, poetic, uplifting. When it comes down to ideological squabbles among the scientists, it takes on an artificial character that's far less prepossessing.

Part of this is the playwright's point, of course: that physical limitations are not real limitations at all; that we limit our own lives with petty and restricted thinking.

The woman/child in the cabin is a natural savant. Her confinement has liberated her mind. When Jake wants to take her with him to the world outside, she refuses. Her entire world is in that cabin, the only world that can be real to her.

Trying to describe to Nell what wood is, Jake explains about the trees in the forest and cutting them down. "And some day men come to cut down my mind to use to build," says Nell, suspecting they're already there, chiseling away.

Handley injects other intriguing concepts born of Eastern philosophies: that moments all wear different faces; that what is true now, will have another demeanor later; that less is achieved by moving than by standing still.

By the time the play ends, the video cameras that have kept a constant vigil on the activities of this "specimen" are removed. Nell is free to live as she pleases. She's not quite restored to her earlier isolation--she couldn't be--but she has stood her ground and, without knowing it, put science in its place. "Sometimes," Jake accuses T. C., "I think you'd grind a statue down to sand in order to understand it."

"It's important that I sayin' the right sayin'," Nell explains to a chastened and intimidated T. C. "It's less important that you hear."

This emulates Handley's philosophy. He has presented us with a semi-fictional case (stories of people reared by animals or alone crop up with regularity in our newspapers) and embroidered persuasively on it. Near the end he puts big English words in Nell's mouth that improbably reflect rococo cliches ("I have touched your life obliquely with the tip of my tongue"), but by and large he remains true to Nell's simplicity.

Lieber, Houston and especially Chapman struggle with portrayals of paper tigers. Director Ron Sossi has given them plenty of growl to detract from the insufficiency of their characters, but it won't go away. Perhaps because they contrast so unfavorably with Nell. Perhaps because Nell is so complete as written, and is played with such inner conviction by Hogan.

Kathi O'Donohue's lighting design is fine. Saeed Hedjazi's set is awkwardly laid out in the small Odyssey 2 space, but it barely dampens the production's visceral power.

At 12111 Ohio Ave. (near Bundy) in West Los Angeles, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinees Sunday and April 2. (There will be no evening performances on those dates.) The show is open-ended. Tickets: $14.50-$18.50; (213) 826-1626.

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