Latino Chicago Theater Company



Live Theatre

In his biography of Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellmann tells of a dinner party in Paris at which Remy de Gourmont interrupted a story Wilde was telling about Salome to correct him. “You have confused two Salomes,” Gourmont chided. “One was the daughter of Herod, but as Josephus attests, she had nothing to do with the dancer in the Bible.” Wilde bore this correction with polite silence but later complained to a friend, “That poor Gourmont thinks he knows more than anybody else. What he told us was the truth of a professor at the Institute. I prefer the other truth, my own, which is that of the dream. Between two truths, the falser is the truer.”

If only Rafael Lima had taken these words to heart before writing Parting Gestures, he might have come up with a ripping play. Instead this journalist-turned-playwright turned out a perfectly conventional family drama (reminiscent, but only vaguely, of that mother of intense American family drama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night) that rarely rises above mundane realism.

The story concerns a mother and her estranged adult son who are reunited for a few hours to attend the funeral of his father, her ex-husband. Told from the point of view of the son, the play at first seems to be about reconciliation but quickly degenerates into a 90-minute argument between parent and child about which parent abandoned the other and whether or not the deceased was a good father or husband. In the process, the two are forced (in the great O’Neill tradition) to confront the truth about themselves and about the people they at once love and hate.

We learn, for instance, that the pilot father was not the hero the son thought he was but a bullying son of a bitch. We learn that the mother put her young son in a mental hospital because he had emotional problems. And we learn that after he was released from the hospital she would put a sedative in his food to knock him out when she was at work. So it goes. Lima’s characters reveal themselves layer by layer until, by the end of the play, they stand stripped–their flaws, their shame, their pain all visible to us.

And we couldn’t be less interested. The moments when the play really flies occur when the mother and son share stories that focus not on what the old man was really like but on the way they remember him. The Yankees baseball cap that was always perched on his head. The way the curved highway was reflected in his mirrored sunglasses. How handsome he looked in uniform the day he landed his helicopter in her backyard to take the starstruck 17-year-old out on a date.

These stories, told as monologues, are the only moving, transcendent moments in the play. But they aren’t the stories that seem to matter to Lima; he only uses them as stepping- stones to the deeper “truths” of the play–that the past was ugly, that the old man was a bastard and a wife beater, that the son grew up to be an emotional mess.

I have nothing against confronting the truth. It can be therapeutic (especially when done in the company of a professional psychiatrist). It’s just that an hour and a half of confrontation becomes tedious, especially when handled as humorlessly as Lima handles it.

The only other work by Rafael Lima I’ve seen, El Salvador, suffers from the same sort of humorless, flat literalism that ignores the complexity of human experience even as it pretends to acknowledge it. Perhaps all those years working for CNN took their toll on Rafael Lima.

Both plays share a kind of emotional impoverishment, as if Lima only allowed onto the stage those emotions (anger, frustration, sadness) and those revelations (Dad was a bully, I’m a drug addict, Mom did what she had to do) that play well on TV.

Someone inserted a quotation from Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides into the program: “I betray the integrity of my family’s history by turning everything, even sadness into romance. There is no romance in this story; there is only the story.” They hoped, I suppose, to make Lima’s descent into the hell of a dysfunctional family a more noble journey. Instead they only underscored what Lima missed in his work: that as mother and son spill their guts about what really happened, they are only constructing another set of fictions about the past no truer than the romantic stories they debunked. And they never reach that point the characters reach in Conroy’s The Great Santini, when the ambivalence and the anger and the sense of loss finally overwhelm them, and they cry. No one cries in Parting Gestures, because both characters, for all their talk about finally understanding what happened, are still emotionally constipated. They still confuse talking about feelings with feeling.

Not that Lima should shoulder all of the blame for his characters’ emotional limitations. Laurie Martinez and Carlos Sanz could have added the emotional depth missing in Lima’s work. But though both are clearly talented and polished actors, they never manage to rise above the material–except during the monologues, when their acting soars.

Had Oscar Wilde lived to see A.C. Thomas’s revisionist production of Wilde’s Salome he might well have taken back his words about preferring the false truth of dreams to the banal truth of scholars and literalists. Thomas has managed to create a production that is at once banal and false, literal and untrue.

A great deal of the blame lies with the eight-person cast, whose listless acting and perfunctory delivery flatten Wilde’s highly poetic dialogue and turn what could be an interesting play into 90 minutes of jabber. With rare exceptions, this green cast treat Wilde’s rich text (full of wicked parodies of theological arguments and playful variations on the Song of Songs) as just so much nonsense to be gotten through as quickly as possible.

Especially disappointing are James Harvey as a mealymouthed Herod and India Whiteside as an emotionally withdrawn Captain of the Guard. Both characters supposedly lust after Salome with every atom of their beings, yet neither convince us for a moment that they are truly obsessed with the girl. When the Captain of the Guard commits suicide because of her unrequited love for Salome, we don’t believe it for a minute.

Only Tracey R. Gilbert (Salome) and Dexter Zollicoffer (Iokanaan, the Prophet) deliver their lines with the necessary conviction. Unfortunately, both actors overcompensate for the tentativeness of the other actors by speaking too loudly and gesturing too extravagantly. Still, Gilbert’s gutsy dance of the seven veils (choreographed by Tami Zimmerman) and the long, sad soliloquy she delivers at the end of the play are two of the few dramatic moments in this otherwise amateurish production.

Thomas’s production of Edward Bond’s one-act Marxist parable, Stone, is significantly more successful, partly because Thomas left the story alone and partly because Bond’s simple story (about a young man trying to make his way in the world) lends itself to underacting. Once again, only Zollicoffer (as the young man) and Gilbert (as an exotic dancer) turn in performances worth noting. Sadly, Stone is too short a work (less than 45 minutes long) and comes too late in the evening to save the double bill.