Balm in Gilead

Conquest Productions and Impact Theatre

at the Neo-Futurarium

By Lawrence Bommer

Balm in Gilead is over 30 years old, but Lanford Wilson’s experiment in applying cinematic jump cuts and cross talk to theater still delivers the goods. Like Elmer Rice’s Street Scene of 40 years earlier and Jonathan Larson’s Rent a quarter century later, Wilson’s play cross-sections New York’s lower depths. And though there’s energy in his anonymous junkies, drag queens, bums, dealers, and hookers, there’s no joy: this is not the stuff of Whitman. This is a world where “everybody lives off everybody,” as one character puts it, and the little love we see is soon snuffed out.

Like Rice in his seminal Street Scene, Wilson carves out a seemingly random story, establishing a flow of humanity from which certain tragic souls surface. But Wilson’s streetwise, chaotic, irreverent action portrait is an even more uncompromising hymn to life’s walking wounded: the survival struggles of his dead-end denizens never fuse into the sentimental solidarity of Street Scene or the gutter concord of Rent. And because Wilson’s pitilessly exposed loners have no manifest destiny, Balm in Gilead seems less dated than the earlier or the later work. The sole ethic here is to get high, get laid, or get a roof over one’s head.

Wilson would later refine his compassion for life’s underdogs in Hot L Baltimore and Fifth of July. Here he makes no apologies for the underclass; he just presents a tangled urban web as formless and anarchic as the real thing. Only the semblance of a story emerges from the quarrels that erupt in the greasy spoon on upper Broadway that’s the play’s setting: Darlene, a homesick Chicago emigre, sleeps with Joe, a small-time dope dealer who’s deeply in debt to a big-time drug lord. But when the playwright’s camera zooms in on this story, it’s an effective focus. Joe’s end would be tragic if this were opera, but in this context it’s one more drug killing, an event so ordinary that, to give it substance, it’s repeated twice, in slow motion and with a strobe light. Because it’s the final scene, Joe’s death seems more climactic than it would in this world, where it’s just one damn thing after another and everything’s equal: the narrator-junkie’s soliloquy about cockroaches, the street bums’ ragged trio, the apostrophes to the audience to explain why hookers stay with abusive pimps.

As Steppenwolf proved in 1980, Big Game Theater verified in 1989, and Michael Ryczek’s pulse-pounding 1997 revival confirms, Balm in Gilead is catnip for hungry actors. The play virtually detonates when a raw, young ensemble meets a director who goes beyond crowd control to shape Wilson’s randomness into inevitability. The sprawling script, with its overlapping dialogue and constant turmoil, demands an ensemble as together as its characters are shattered. Swaggering, lurching, and staggering through a graffiti-covered street and around the claustrophobic all-night diner, the young actors in this staging, by Conquest Productions and Impact Theatre, ebb and flow like flotsam on waves. Appropriately, their entrances and exits seem as arbitrary as their characters’ lives.

Ryczek’s staging lacks some of the sheer sweep and gallows humor of John Malkovich’s Steppenwolf production. But then in the context of the 90s the play loses some of its exuberance. And, you can argue, the Chicago theater scene has lost some of its flamboyance. Steppenwolf’s local premiere captured the play’s 60s ambience, celebrating the rootless hippie lifestyle with irreverent vitality. But ever since Remains Theatre’s Road, Chicago companies have chosen grim naturalism rather than age-of-Aquarius abandon in their large ensemble offerings. If Steppenwolf’s version seemed the big parade of an urban circus, and Big Game’s revival an exercise in funky nostalgia, this reprise feels like a walk on the wild side. It makes sense: today Wilson’s protean script suggests homelessness rather than rebellion. It evokes the throwaway kids at Clark and Belmont who can barely care for themselves, let alone each other.

At least Ryczek’s grungy circus preserves the script’s mean kick. And some things don’t change: this production features patented Chicago rock ‘n’ roll acting. The 22 cast members take risks, even if they do resemble nice white kids slumming. (More disturbing, in the three productions I’ve seen there have been no black actors; what kind of New York street scene is this?) Matt Pavich’s overconfident Joe stands for a score of dangerous dreamers; his generic performance feels right, because Joe’s capricious life is interchangeable with many others.

It’s Darlene who registers the humanity this world will soon strip away. Where Laurie Metcalf brought a dopey grace to the part, Jodi Wonlo delivers a riveting mix of earnestness and vulnerability. Most remarkable is her long monologue about getting a marriage license with an albino stud named Cotton: on the surface it’s a hilariously breathless account of the crowds in City Hall on a sultry day, but underneath it’s a soul-shaking lament on how love can turn ordinary, tinged by later regrets over Cotton’s cruelties. Displaying an awesomely natural neediness, Wonlo balances Darlene’s exuberance against the heartache that swallows up the story.

Playing Dopey, the play’s sporadic tour guide, John O’Meara is strangely laid-back, a big departure from Steppenwolf’s juiced-up Gary Sinise and Big Game’s hyperactive Mike McCune. O’Meara’s approach would work better if he didn’t literally drag out his testimonial to the cockroach by spewing out enough cigarette smoke to asphyxiate an asthmatic.

In this tight ensemble, no one necessarily stands out. But some credit should go to Pam Bark for her lacerating look at a junkie quivering for a fix, to Phil Donlon as a motormouth addict in the last stage of dementia, and to Maria Dandridge for her affecting prostitute, one of the few characters who bothers to listen. That’s the only balm in this grim Gilead.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Mike Llewellyn.