Whenever a play deals with important concepts, especially concepts of a political nature, a terrible trap lurks in the gloom. Call it awe. It is the danger of overdoing the respect.
That danger was always there in Ariel Dorfman’s “Widows.” It was in his 1978 novel, written from the heart, but set in Greece in an abortive attempt to disguise the identity of the author and the fact that it was about the desaparecidos (“disappeared”) in his native Chile during the Pinochet regime.
And it has not escaped the play derived from the novel that opened Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum. It is the product of six years of adaptation, workshopping, trial and tryout by Dorfman, most recently with the help of Tony Kushner. That “danger” is the substitution of poetic and often startling images for dramatic tension--and the replacement of character by speeches and speechifying. Mouthpieces do the work.
Such as it is.
Dorfman himself identifies the danger in a program note. “I could not accept the play . . . without a ‘magical’ component,” he writes, “a component easier to state theoretically than to stage dramatically.”
Indeed. There is magic in Douglas Stein’s symmetrical set--wave upon stratified wave of hardened, barren, bitter earth, given a roseate glow by Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lights glancing off the surface of an invisible river.
And there is uncontested magic in Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s original soundscore that bridges scenes with otherworldly gurgles and thunderclaps and vigorous guitars, given exceptional spatial dimension by a system called QSound.
But the deliberate pace and majesty of Robert Egan’s direction, the intonations of the women--the widows of the title, whose fathers, husbands, brothers and sons have disappeared and who seem to be washing up as mangled bodies in the river where the women do their laundry--is an attempt at a theater of ritual that doesn’t quite rise to the occasion.
It comes closest to Greek tragedy, in visual composition and intent. The defiant widows are the Trojan Women. The men are at once the absent victims and the villains, including the troubled Captain (Tony Plana), newly appointed to this village outpost; his insubordinate lieutenant (Robert Beltran); the uppity orderly Emmanuel (Luis Antonio Ramos), hungry for a life in the city; the contemptuous landowner, Philip Kastoria (Ruben Sierra), his wife (Cordelia Gonzalez) and his cigar-chomping brother (Winston Jose Rocha-Castillo).
The women form the resistance, the soldiers the brute force. Nobility vs. callousness. Black on white, with little gray in between.
In concept, one might argue that it should have worked, but in practice such broadly delineated personifications rarely do. The words are meant to be poetic and brave and end up being merely hollow. They lack the elasticity of real speech, just as the characters, like the corpses in the river, lack individual dimension, flesh or blood. They are, as they were in the novel, a device in the service of an idea. All is effect, but little touches us effectively. We’re invited to admire, not experience.
Dorfman and Kushner tip their hand when they give the play’s locale as “Too Many Countries in the World,” even though the story here is given a distinctly Latin or South American flavor. It is easy to feel something in the particular, but almost impossible to harness emotion in the abstract. The casting is assiduously multiracial, living up to the vagueness of the location. Commendable, but neither a help nor more of a hindrance than the other generalities.
Despite a competent company of actors only two or three performances seem humanly drawn: Carlos Gomez as Father Gabriel, the parish priest; Robert Glaudini as the virtually speechless Alonso, a torture victim returned to a world for which he no longer has any use, and Lorraine Toussaint as Cecilia, the emotionally battered girl-friend of the brutish Emmanuel.
Novella Nelson may be a fine actress, but as the matriarch who sets this resistance in motion and keeps the turmoil at a fevered pitch, she plays into the self-important writing by working the sounds as much as the words, and falling victim to her own incantatory tendencies.
In the end, despite the collective sensitivity and intelligence at work here, the play eludes its makers. It remains an exercise in artifice rather than art. Once, it deals in graspable imagery, when the sparring captain and lieutenant try to define repression. The captain tells a story about a dog his father used to beat who eventually bit him and had to be shot. The parable as he sees it: watch out for those you humble, they may come back to cripple you. “The point here,” counters the lieutenant, “is the tension on the leash.”
In a play, the point is always the tension in the leash. Without it there’s not much of a play.
“Widows,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Music Center. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 8. $24-$30; (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000, TDD (213) 680-4017. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Novella Nelson: Sofia Fuentes
Ivonne Coll: Alexandra
Natsuko Ohama: Yanina
Luchy Carcia: Fidelia
Robert Ray Jimenez: Alexis
Robert Glaudini: Alonso, the Army doctor
Lilian Hurst: Teresa Salas
Tantoo Cardinal: Katherina
Cordelia Gonzalez: Rosa, Beatrice Kastoria
Laurie Souza: Amanda
Elizabeth Fong Sung: Lucia
Margaret Medina; Ramona
Lorraine Toussaint: Cecilia Sanjines
Tony Plana: The Captain
Robert Beltran: The Lieutenant
Luis Antonio Ramos: Emmanuel, the orderly
Carlos Gomez: Father Gabriel
Ruben Sierra: Philip Kastoria
Winston Jose Rocha-Castillo: Kastoria’s brother
Nelson Mashita: The Prisoner
A Center Theatre Group presentation of a new pl;ay by Ariel Dorfman with Tony Kushner, based on Dorfman’s novel of the same name. Artistic director/producer Gordon Davidson. Director Robert Egan. Set Douglas Stein. Lights Natasha Katz. Costumes Dunya Ramicova. Original music and sound Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Sound consultant Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner. Stage manager Tami Toon.