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THEATER REVIEW : Balkanization of Soul Fuels Family Conflict in ‘Name Day’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The bombshells in “Name Day,” Jovanka Bach’s 1985 drama about Americanized Serbian families, aren’t the kind of mortar fire we’ve come to associate with the present-day Balkans, but they’re devastating nonetheless.

On the more personalized battlefield of the L.A. suburbs, Bach burrows into the carefully framed particulars of an individual grievance to reveal the psychological scars of perpetual warfare in that historically troubled region.

The conflicts facing members of any ethnic group coping with assimilation into the melting pot also figure prominently, and John Stark’s frequently affecting staging at the Odyssey Theatre brings them into admirable focus: how to accommodate polar allegiances to centuries-old traditions with new ways of thinking, what rights of self-determination to grant future generations, and most important, when to let go of the past.

Tragically ensnared in these issues is Kara Mitor (Nancy Jeris), a traditional Serbian mother obsessed with the death of her first child during World War II. She rejects the comfort offered by her sensitive, kindhearted husband, Velco (John DiFusco), who weathered the adaptation to the New World in much better shape.

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The past reaches out with a vengeance when their second son (Todd Babcock) introduces his fiancee (Carolyn Palmer), who turns out to be the granddaughter of Kara’s long-lost youthful companion, Nina (Kerry Michaels).

Kara’s dismay at the engagement signals trouble much deeper than a mother’s reluctance to let go of her son. Nor can the fact that Nina had been Velco’s sweetheart before dumping him for the steadfast but clueless Stanko (Adam Gregor) explain Kara’s relentless hostility toward her former friend.

Nina’s own discomfort when the two families meet only confirms the presence of a wound that never healed. Clearly it’s related to their wartime experience, but Bach coyly keeps the truth under wraps until the second act, leaving Kara to agonize cryptically over whether to reveal a secret that could imperil the happiness of the innocent young couple.

Also on hand for the fireworks are the girl’s parents--Nina’s relentlessly dull son (Alexander Wells) and his bitter wife (Paula Fins), and an Orthodox priest (William B. Jackson). Amid the consistently accomplished performances, Jeris, DiFusco, Gregor and Palmer deserve extra recognition for bringing unexpected depths of soul to their characters.

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On the other hand, Bach’s script is undeniably contrived at times. Some awkward devices used to engineer private conversations aren’t helped by keeping non-participants onstage in a kind of dimly lit suspended animation. After a slow-building start, the deluge of buried secrets and repressed issues is somewhat bewildering. The scenes dealing with both women’s emotional stranglehold on their sons seem to come out of left field very late in the game.

Still, “Name Day” leapfrogs structural limitations with compelling performances and a strong warning about the quicksand of brooding.

* “Name Day,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 17. $17.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.


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