Leo, the eccentric hero of Mark Stein's offbeat little play, may or may not be a modern-day prophet, but he's beset by the trials and tribulations of prophets immemorial in Access Theatre's funny-sad, and ultimately uplifting, production. Convinced he's found the universal solution to life's problems, Leo can't understand the apathy and disbelief he encounters from the world, even from his own family.
Especially his own family. Returning home from years of unemployed soul-searching with his 638-page manifesto in tow, Leo (Rod Lathim) tries without success to interest his parents and sister in its contents. The best response he gets is when his father picks up the weighty manuscript:
"This represents one hell of an effort--the Xeroxing alone. . . ."
Leo had to resort to copying the work himself after numerous rejections from publishers--no one is interested in another "save the world" recipe. But even more disturbing than the world's indifference is the nagging possibility that he might not be a prophet at all--just a middle-aged loser "addicted to hope," in his mother's sneering description.
This "last temptation of Leo" is played out in the back yard of a miraculously undistinguished American tract house. And it's precisely that tension between ordinary life and the call to sainthood that propels the play through comedy and drama in equal measure.
Rod Lathim plays Leo with a mixture of cherubic charisma and simple-minded naivete. Lathim, Access Theatre's founder and artistic director, has not performed on stage in over five years. But fortunately the decision to cast himself proves more than vanity theater. Lathim's rapport with Leo as a fellow visionary was obviously the reason for selecting the play in the first place. His performance is absolutely convincing--we feel he's walked many miles in Leo's shoes.
The important difference is that Leo is a dreamer without accomplishments, while Lathim's Santa Barbara-based theater company has earned international prominence for groundbreaking productions that routinely integrate able-bodied performers and actors with disabilities, without compromising artistic quality. The term "accessible theater" has become the officially sanctioned term for this unique genre, in recognition of Lathim's pioneering efforts. As in previous Access productions, "At Long Last Leo" is signed for the hearing impaired by Kathryn Voice.
On the other hand, the role of Leo lets Lathim purge some demons, showing the dark side to the life of a visionary. To a complacent society, "the most frightening thing in the world is a new idea," he points out with the particular intensity of a man who's faced frustration head-on.
In addition to the outside world's seemingly insurmountable challenges, just as many pitfalls must be faced from within. Lathim skillfully shows us Leo's tendency to keep the world at bay by retreating to a level of metaphysical distraction. It's nice and safe in there and he doesn't have to deal with either pain or responsibilities.
The price he pays is that his own issues, along with his entire emotional life, remain largely unexamined until they erupt with all the tyranny of unconscious compulsion. There's real nobility in this perpetual do-gooder, but he's also more than a little naive and unreal. Leo has built up a lot of repressed anger and hostility, which he vents later on in a savage outburst, hurling copies of his manifesto in every direction.
Lathim has shrewdly surrounded himself here with a thoroughly professional cast who balance the piece admirably with their well-defined characters and points of view. In two cases, performers better known for television work tackle the more sustained dramatic intensity of the stage.
Victoria Ann-Lewis (from Knot's Landing) plays Leo's single-parent sister with a convincing mix of fire and sarcasm. Somewhat reminiscent of Rhea Perlman of "Cheers," she brings her own spin to the romantic impulses buried beneath a hard-boiled shell. She is quite affecting as she keeps yanking herself back from the brink of compassion. Ann-Lewis, who overcame an early polio affliction and remains an activist in integrating people with disabilities in the performing arts, proves a perfect casting choice in both a performance and a symbolic context.
The subject of disability is never far from the focus of an Access production, and in this case the thematic connection is Leo's chronically depressed mother, played by Emmy winner Bonnie Bartlett ("St. Elsewhere").
Bartlett evokes sad-eyed, brow-wrinkled anxiety with unsettling precision. Hers is a clinical case, not simply that of a woman with the doldrums.
In large part she's responsible for the self-fulfilling expectations of failure we see in both Leo and his sister, and if Bartlett could own up to this complicity it would make her less an object of rarefied pity and more the villain suggested by the text. A tough-minded choice, but a more realistic one.
In supporting performances, Chet Carlin is Leo's endearingly affable but weak-willed father, and Delta Giordano Morgan gives a charmingly natural focus to Leo's childhood friend who gently coaxes him out of the ozone and into a real-world relationship. Young Tyler Dumm, a blind actor making his stage debut, appears briefly as Leo's nephew.
Frank Condon's impeccable direction fine-tunes the pacing and the performances to compensate for some cliche-ridden bogs in Stein's script, making "At Long Last Leo" a thoroughly enjoyable theater outing.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"At Long Last Leo" will be performed through May 26, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16 Thursday through Saturday and $14.50 Wednesday and Sunday. Call 963-0408 for reservations or further information.