Big Game Theater

John Guare’s Women and Water, the first in a trilogy about the character Lydie Breeze, is a a play of epic proportions. Big Game Theater’s space is tiny, not much more than a large living room, and the company has a number of fairly inexperienced actors. Yet Big Game has managed to create some magic with its production of this play, spinning out the story of Lydie’s transformation from girl to woman with ingenuity and grace.

Women and Water is antigovernment and antiwar, but it’s essentially a search for truth. It begins with the young and idealistic Lydie working as a nurse during a Civil War battle. She has run away from her home in Nantucket because she began to believe she had been drawn into a lie by her adored father and brother after they returned from a whaling trip, and she was unable to confront them. During the battle Lydie meets a young man who persuades her to try to find supplies the soldiers need, and then sets off on a long journey that crisscrosses the country. Along the way she meets four men (one of whom is the young man who persuaded her to go) who become her companions, and eventually they all end up heading toward her home in Nantucket. There she, with the help of her new friends, intends to discover the truth about her father and brother, each of whom tells a completely different story. In the process, she is forced to give up her youthful notion that the world is black and white, and learns that some things can never be known. As she makes the transition from girlhood to womanhood, she becomes aware that she finally has some wisdom to impart to a new generation.

Director David Cromer and his talented crew of actors and designers have put together an intensely committed production of this play. Tom Bell is responsible for the astonishing sound design, which almost becomes another character as it subtly informs and adds textures to nearly every scene. Set designer Jane Galt uses natural materials, mostly wood and rope, to create a rough and simple environment; her platforms open up and pull out to quickly and easily create myriad settings. Lighting designer J.R. Lederle expands Galt’s work by creating new moods for each place and by focusing on small areas within the already small space (though he could do some work on the camp-fire effect). Jennifer Bartels’s costumes are simple and fitting, though it would be nice to see the wear and tear of the journey mirrored in the clothing.

The actors, about half of whom have little experience beyond their work at Columbia College, are talented and enthusiastic. There are several fine performances in the major roles. Brett Radford is hilarious as the stupid but good-hearted soldier Amos Mason, and often provides relief from the preachier parts of the show. Peter Blood as Dan Grady, Lydie’s Irish racketeer, is charming. So is David Bryson as Joshua Hickman, her intellectual poet. Blood makes Grady the quintessential bad boy but still allows the kinder soul beneath to shine through. Bryson fills his Joshua with earnestness and sensitivity. It’s easy to see why Lydie falls for both of them. Alexander Parker is Lydie’s fourth companion, Moncure Nelson, a black cabin boy from her father’s ship who became a priest. He doesn’t give his character the breadth of the other three companions, but he has a compelling presence and does some astounding physical work. Natasha Lowe, as Lydie Breeze, is a little weaker than the rest, mainly because she has to carry the weight of the show. She is stunningly beautiful and clearly conveys Lydie’s appealing naivete and almost missionary zeal for life. But her Lydie never quite makes the transition to womanhood.

There are also a number of fine performances in the slightly smaller roles. WFMT’s Mel Zellman is marvelous as Lydie’s father; his mellifluous voice and way with words make Captain Breeze the hero his daughter takes him for. Also strong are Keli Garrett as the nurse Zenna Gordon and Chet Grissom as Lydie’s twin brother Cabell. Both actors give their parts a depth and complexity sometimes lacking in the other characters.

Director Cromer has bound the group into such a tight ensemble that no one steals the focus from anyone else’s work. He has coached his actors to move effortlessly from battlefields to ballrooms. And he is a master of stage pictures. His staging of a homosexual rape–while other characters in another time period watch from behind a scrim that is also the sail of a ship–is one of the most chillingly effective scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

However, Women and Water is a highly allegorical piece. The title comes from a commanding officer’s speech that spurred the soldiers into battle: “There’s women on the other side! There’s water! Behind those lines, there’s paradise! Go and get it!” Lydie too is searching for paradise behind the lines she once drew for herself, and she also faces a personal civil war. The spiritual side of Guare’s play can also be seen in Lydie’s four companions, each of whom represents one of the four estates of medieval times: the peasant (or farmer), the priest, the merchant, and the nobleman (in this case, an intellectual poet). Even her brother’s name is indicative of the metaphysical struggle Guare intends. Cabell is, as Lydie succinctly puts it, her Cain and her Abel. But Guare’s most obvious clue that Women and Water is a spiritual parable comes in the final scene, when Lydie reinvents the world by telling the story of the New Testament backwards: Jesus was first nailed to the cross, then he was taken down, then he performed miracles–until all that is left is serenity.

It is on this level tha the production falls short. Cromer’s Women and Water focuses on the earthbound story line rather than on what the characters and events symbolize. He has chosen which of the four estates are most important. Rather than allowing all the forces to battle around Lydie and then letting her decide what is right, he gives her the “correct” choices, which she must simply allow herself to see. The balance has been tipped in other ways. Cabell is almost pure Cain, the father almost pure good. Lydie’s peasant, Amos Mason, is only a gentle fool; the religious aspects of her priest, Moncure Nelson, are almost completely passed over. Some of the darker aspects of the play are barely acknowledged: the strong suggestion of incest, the role of racism, the sexual tension between the companions, and the brutal side of Lydie’s father (along with the possibility that he has a rich fantasy life). It is a major tribute to Cromer and his cast that these profound failings seem small.

One warning: a lot of guns are shot off during the performance and they are often pointed at the audience, so anyone who doesn’t like loud noises may find some parts difficult to endure.