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Caution and Controversy : Director Steels Himself for Any Response to ‘Aunt Dan and Lemon’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

South Coast Repertory realized it was juggling a hot one when the company staged “Aunt Dan and Lemon” in 1988. Orange Coast College’s Repertory Theatre Company feels the same heat as its production of Wallace Shawn’s controversial drama opens tonight.

Knowing full well that “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” with its spate of graphic sex and Nazi-glorifying monologues, has created uproar after uproar since premiering in 1985 at the Public Theater in New York, SCR warned audiences ahead of time.

The playhouse even stuck Shawn’s own eight-page essay, “When Morality Fails Us,” in the program to explain the ideology and satire at the core of “Aunt Dan and Lemon.” That may have helped some, but not much. The run was greeted with dozens of walkouts and a passel of angry letters.

Rick Golson, who’s directing the student production, admitted he’s worried and prepared for anything. Golson, the drama department chairman, said that, as a precaution, OCC may follow SCR’s example and include some of Shawn’s writings on the piece in the program.

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“I’m always concerned about this one because we don’t want to offend anybody, (but) also we want to stay true to what Shawn is saying,” Golson explained. “Shawn said he wants everybody to be forced into confronting the destructive ideas (in the play) and be challenged by them.

“He doesn’t want anybody to be too comfortable, (and you) wonder how the audience will react.”

The play focuses on Lemon, a young woman, and her older mentor, Aunt Dan (for Danielle). A series of soliloquies lets us know what these two honest but not-so-lovable characters are all about.

Lemon, anorexic and talkative, denounces hypocrites, then extends the argument to a sort of perverse respect for the Nazis. At least they never apologized for the Holocaust, she says. Lemon adds off-handedly that she’s only felt sympathy for fictional characters, not for real people who have suffered.

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As for Aunt Dan, she raises Henry Kissinger to the highest pedestal, arguing that he saved the American way of life during the Vietnam years. She’s the ideal conservative revisionist, painting the world in a way that agrees with her principles.

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Aunt Dan’s take on things is sure to rankle some, but Lemon’s seemingly anti-Semitic ramblings rocked the house at SCR. It may do the same at OCC, Golson said, but he wants audiences to understand that Shawn is making valid points about how we view life.

“By taking a 24-year-old (Lemon), someone who’s pretty and we’d think probably has high morals, and then exposing her evil side, Shawn wants us to see” how evil can spring from the most ordinary of people, he explained.

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“In his writings, he’s gone even further, saying that we can’t be hypocrites and accept an easy life. We have to look at what Hitler did versus what we did in our own history, that we (victimized) the American Indian (and that we should question) our own foreign policy.”

Golson said he and his cast will stick with what Shawn intended, choosing not to eliminate or change any of the dialogue. But some of the drama’s sexual fireworks will be toned down, mainly to conform to the college’s policy of no nudity.

Flashbacks recounting Aunt Dan’s sexual interludes from her youthful days in London break up the lengthy series of monologues. In more explicit productions, there were frank simulations of oral copulation and death-by-strangulation as a climaxing moment.

At SCR, this particular scene was staged with a prostitute in a black slip and her customer in his underwear. At OCC, the view will be even less provocative, with the action more muted.

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“The actors are fully dressed; that’s one thing,” Golson said. “Another is they start but the woman stops him from continuing. We have to soft-pedal it (because) the college won’t let us go that far.”

Golson said the play is obviously difficult, but it can be fascinating as well. He first saw it produced in San Francisco in 1988 and said he couldn’t get it out of his mind.

“I was very bewildered and very intrigued at the same time, not knowing really what it was all about,” he recalled. “It stuck with me, so it wasn’t typical. I like plays about ideas and words, and this is certainly one of those plays.

“The college never said anything to me about not doing ‘Aunt Dan and Lemon’ (because of the potential controversy), and the students were very enthusiastic about it. They said stuff like ‘Wow, this is an intriguing, challenging work!’ That’s what they look for.”

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In an indirect way, “Aunt Dan and Lemon” also has topical import, he said. Because of “Schindler’s List,” the drama appeals to students who are learning more about the Holocaust.

Golson said any interest in recent history is valuable because so many of his students seem ignorant about what has come before them.

“I have to admit that I’m often surprised to have to explain to them aspects of the Holocaust,” he said. “Many of them just aren’t aware of it. Some haven’t even heard of it. It’s startling.”

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* Orange Coast College’s production of Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon” opens tonight at 8 in the Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Performances continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Aug. 28. $5. (714) 432-5932.


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