As a commercial airliner lurches through turbulence, a pair of middle-aged women clasp hands and pray for smooth air ahead. "I can bear anything as long as I know it's going to end," one of them says.
These traveling companions know all too well, however, that pain sometimes goes on and on, with no end in sight. In Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh," they are buffeted by loss, guilt and despair--and soothed, ultimately, by compassion and hope.
McNally's 1993 play is, arguably, his best. It is more deeply affecting than "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," more subtly insinuating than "The Lisbon Traviata" or "Love! Valour! Compassion!" Frustratingly, however, it remains all but unseen in Southern California. Small companies in Santa Barbara and Solana Beach have given it solid stagings, but no major professional company has taken it on.
Another small troupe, the fledgling Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, puts earnest effort into a visiting production at the Gem Theater, but the company simply doesn't have the experience or the personnel to master this complex yet oh, so delicate play.
Longtime friends Margaret Civil and Katharine Brynne live comfortably among the country-club set of Greenwich, Conn. Yet each has suffered profound loss, with more on the way.
Yearning to distance themselves from the pain, they embark on a trip to India, where they are, at first, overwhelmed by the country's stark contrasts--its spiritual serenity amid crushing crowds, its breathtaking beauty amid grotesque poverty. Encountering so much that is so different from what they know, they find their fear and prejudice rushing to the surface. Yet, eventually, the onslaught scours them clean, stripping away their reserve, pretense and moral squeamishness. They emerge purified, as if by a plunge into the sacred Ganges.
Their travels are closely observed, and at times directed, by the Hindu god Ganesha, whom the audience sees with his elephant's head and extra set of arms, but whom the ladies see as various people they meet along the way. Katharine's son, killed in a gay-bashing episode, is reincarnated in various people as well.
As Margaret and Katharine, Joan Meissenburg and Susan Shearer/Stewart are, respectively, fussy and overorganized, carefree and sloppy--a virtual "Odd Couple" pairing, as the script calls for.
In a role usually played by a man, Cathy Petz conveys Lord Ganesha's playfulness, as well as his shocked disappointment ("Such thoughtless, needless cruelty." "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! All of you!"). Ben Yater brings variety to his many roles, combining a particularly nice mixture of grit and vulnerability as Katharine's son.
Yet no one ever quite relaxes into his or her part, never lives it. Under Dave Barton's direction, the enterprise sometimes comes close to--yet remains far, far away from--what it could be. The show's energy slips into stasis, and a bored, restless audience stops listening to the extraordinary words that made McNally a Pulitzer Prize finalist for this play.
If one listens, however, there is much to be learned. As Lord Ganesha sends Margaret and Katharine on their trip, he quietly marvels at "these two little, insignificant, magnificent lives." And so must we, for their journey is our own.
"A Perfect Ganesh," Grove Theater Center's Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday. Ends March 29. (714) 741-9555. $11. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.