Women and Water

Defiant Theatre, at American Blues Theatre

The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem. –Walt Whitman

Something about America inspires messy epics, sprawling, grandiose works like Moby-Dick or Leaves of Grass or Nashville that try to cram a city, an era, or the entire U.S. into 500 pages, several thousand unrhymed couplets, or three hours. John Guare’s Women and Water is also an epic, including not only the beginning of a tragic love triangle–played out over the course of the other two plays in Guare’s Lydie Breeze trilogy (Gardenia and Lydie Breeze)–but also a flashback to the fiery end of Lydie’s father’s whaling business and, oh yes, the Civil War.

Needless to say, all this action can be overwhelming, as it was several years ago when David Cromer directed a deservedly praised production on Big Game Theater’s tiny stage. Then I thought Guare’s play was chaotic, a hodgepodge. I still think so. But I no longer think a hodgepodge is necessarily a bad thing, especially now that timidity dominates American theater and plays with no more than six characters trapped on a single set are the norm.

There’s certainly something thrilling about seeing Guare’s epic played out on the deep, wide stage of the American Blues Theatre–especially with a cast as fine as the one assembled by Defiant Theatre, an ensemble transplanted here from Champaign-Urbana just a year and a half ago. Yet it isn’t just the sight of wave after wave of charging soldiers that thrills, though that’s part of it. (That’s largely what made Cromer’s production exciting, though the lack of space did transform the war into something of a tempest in a storefront.) What is most thrilling about this production is how well it reveals the subtleties of Guare’s play.

Guare packs his messy epic with details–a man is shot for waving a white flag, a wild boar is killed and eaten, a buzzard sits on a dead man’s chest, a general’s wife begs for food. He also packs his play with multifaceted characters. It’s as if he wanted to see how much his narrative could bear without collapsing. More than 100 characters appear in this play, and God knows how many scenes. Yet it all passes with the swiftness of a movie trailer.

The play’s major characters have a lifelike completeness. For example, Lydie, excellently played by Linda Etoh Pine, is both an idealist and a pragmatist, a woman with a strong spiritual calling and a flawed human being whose failings will eventually wreck her life and the Brooks Farm-like community she and her lovers try to found. Lydie is the sort of character novelists have an easier time creating than playwrights, but then Women and Water contains a novel’s worth of information and action. Yearning to accomplish more than a genre can handle is another symptom of messy epics.

Director Darren Critz’s production glosses over nothing. Each of Guare’s tiny moments, each of his fully realized characters is given a place in the whole, yet we never feel overloaded with information–which is as much a comment on Critz’s focused direction as on Guare’s gifts as a writer. The play passes like some mystical experience, allowing us the opportunity, as all epics do, to see eternity in an instant.

In my February 10 review of Murder in Green Meadows I misspelled the name of actress Pamela Gaye. I apologize for any confusion.