Poet and playwright Naomi Wallace was reading Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year" when the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out. The similarities between London's Great Plague and L.A.'s recent cataclysm may not be immediately apparent. However, Wallace was so inspired by the profound parallels that she penned "One Flea Spare," her Obie-winning drama set in 1665 London. It's at Whittier College in a production by the Lost World.
In Los Angeles as well as London, calamity proved a great leveler. However, even with death and panic all around him, the wealthy Mr. William Snelgrave (Patrick Egan) still insists on the prerogatives of his class. Quarantined in their London home, their windows nailed shut and their servants dead, Snelgrave and his wife, Darcy (Stephanie Dunnam), are counting the days until they can flee the city, as most of London's elite have already done.
Their plans go awry when Bunce (Cameron Watson) and Morse (Stephanie Trosen), an itinerant sailor and a 12-year-old orphan, sneak into the house in search of shelter. The sentry Kabe (Andrew Brye), a born survivor who relishes his power over the gentry, spots the intruders and extends the quarantine on the Snelgrave home. It's a fateful--and fatal--tenure.
Wallace took her title from Donne's mock romantic poem "The Flea," in which a cunning seducer uses the flea as a symbol to press his amorous suit. Wallace's metaphoric intent is hardly so playful. Even in the "enlightened" London of the mid-1600s, the poor were viewed as little more than vermin. When the have-nots swarm out of their established precincts, they threaten to overrun the society. Understanding this, the precociously cunning Morse poses as a gentleman's daughter, an imposture that excites Snelgrave's compassion and charity.
Highly poetic and insightful, Wallace's drama depicts the brutal inequities of the British class system in stark relief. Yet her dramatic treatment of Snelgrave, who strikes us as more buffoonish than evil, seems capricious. When Darcy, the wife scorned, teams up with Morse and Bunce to torment her husband, their interaction seems anachronistically post-Freudian, a sort of Restoration play as penned by Edward Albee.
Despite the flaws in his character, Egan delivers a subtle performance that is both comical and poignant. The same could be said of director Crystal Brian's insightful staging. Blessed with a crack cast, Brian brings to light the rich gallows humor in what could otherwise have been an overly austere piece.
"One Flea Spare," Studio Theatre of the Shannon Center, Whittier College, corner of Painter and Philadelphia, Whittier. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Runs indefinitely. $15. (562) 907-4203. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.