New Lincoln Theater

A Weekend Near Madison testifies to the virtues of old-fashioned naturalism. It is not a good play. The plot is simplistic, the dialogue is alternately sappy and didactic, and the characters are one-dimensional. To top things off, the production at the New Lincoln Theater uses actors who have only a feeble grasp of acting fundamentals.

But playwright Kathleen Tolan has a good eye for ordinary people. She knows how to create reasonable facsimiles of them onstage, and she knows how to put them into conflict with each other. Basically she understands that we are all compulsive eavesdroppers–we simply can’t ignore a good fight. Having provided that, she can dispense with eloquence, wit, and originality. Like a soap opera, A Weekend Near Madison is shallow and often silly, but like a soap opera, it’s also hard to stop watching once you get into it.

The play is a prolonged argument about feminism. Jim, an underachiever who dabbles in art and gets by doing menial jobs, hitchhikes from Philadelphia to his brother’s house near Madison, Wisconsin.

He’s not really close to this brother, David, a psychiatrist, and although he’s fond of his sister-in-law, Doe, he doesn’t really know her very well. What really inspired Jim to make the 1,000-mile trip is the possibility of seeing Vanessa, an ex-girlfriend who has become a lesbian folksinger with a large following among radical feminists.

That is the central conflict–Vanessa’s life-style. Every character in the play has a different attitude toward it.

David brags that he has “been included in the very small group of male shrinks which the Midwest Feminist Alliance has deemed nonsexist,” but he also admits that he finds aspects of the women’s movement “a real turnoff.” “You know why?” Vanessa snaps back. “Because you can’t control it, man.”

Doe is sympathetic to the women’s movement, but not up to the militant demands made by activists like Vanessa. For Vanessa, even her sexual orientation is a political decision. “Nothing is going to change if we keep sleeping with our oppressors,” she asserts. “We have all been so programmed in so many ways to think of the woman as serving the man. The only way to change that is for women to return to the source. To each other. It’s the only way.” But Doe just can’t get herself that worked up. “It’s so limited,” she says of Vanessa’s viewpoint.

Poor old Jim doesn’t know what to think. The nude paintings he did of Vanessa may be gathering mold in his basement, but his love for her remains fresh. He admires her and genuinely wishes her well, but he just can’t come to terms with what radical feminism demands of him. In his longest speech, Jim recalls an afternoon years earlier when he and David were chopping firewood on a cold winter day while Doe and Vanessa cooked dinner. “I felt like a man,” he says with embarrassment. “A man. In some ancient sense. . . . It felt like we were continuing something . . . the men outside, splitting wood for the long winter, the women in the kitchen cooking dinner.” He recognizes that such primal notions of masculinity are hopelessly out of fashion, but he feels them anyway, and can’t cope with the outrageous demand that Vanessa makes on his masculinity later in the play.

Other things happen: David has a crisis with a patient; Doe reveals why they haven’t had any children; Jim reads a letter from his mother, who has moved to an ashram in India. But the heart of this play is the conflict over feminism.

Even though the argument itself is threadbare, that’s all that naturalistic drama really requires. In Broadway Bound, the character who represents Neil Simon’s brother comes home one day with the secret to great writing: “The ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen is conflict!” he announces. “One brother wants to kill another brother. The key word is wants! Somebody has to want something and want it bad.”

Even poor acting can’t destroy Weekend. In this production, staged by Michael Lubek, only Rebecca Lloyd, as Vanessa, creates a believable, three-dimensional character. Barbara Handlon, as Doe, gives a flat performance that does little more than suggest her character’s depression. Jeane Heileman gives Samantha, Vanessa’s lover, such an aura of shyness and innocence that she remains almost invisible onstage. As Jim, Cal Hoffman tends to fidget instead of act, and Jay Geller, who plays David, cannot express emotion believably.

But these actors generate dramatic tension anyway, merely by reciting their lines. Naturalism lends itself to this type of conflict, and conflict is what it’s all about. Still, naturalism doesn’t have to be this mundane. Love Letters on Blue Paper, currently at Northlight Theatre, is a good example. It’s written by Arnold Wesker, a British playwright noted for his “kitchen sink” naturalism, and its events are certainly mundane. Yet it manages to achieve a poetic eloquence, expressed in simple language. Weekend sticks tenaciously to the surface, and like an overheard argument it does provide a moment of excitement, but very little insight.