Lanford Wilson’s salty characters in his gritty “Balm in Gilead” were poetic, profane, proud, pathetic, prostitutes and pimps.
And an eavesdropping audience heard every delicious word.
Director Ruff Yeager turned audience from voyeur to visitor by putting the seats on stage, essentially pulling out a few chairs for guests at fictional Frank’s Café. Mayan Hall got the grand New York treatment by gifted production designer Michael Buckley and became the gritty city that never sleeps.
Prostitutes, druggies, hustlers and boozers, populate Wilson’s mini-dystopia of artful dodgers. Cast members were challenged, but mostly kept up with Wilson’s manic dialogue. Even when the script veered into the grotesque with loads of foul language, the grody conversations rang true. Frank’s is not the happiest place on Earth.
Having the audience so close generated a sense of relaxation in the actors because they did not have to scream their conversations to be heard. Proximity promoted subtlety rare in a stage play. Actors spoke casually and conversationally, and were heard perfectly.
Short dresses, fishnet tights, stilettos, baggy jeans, ripped sweaters and old dirty beanies, dressed the 23-members as well as the set dressed the stage, allowing 2014 to melt away to 1954.
Dopey (DeLeon Dallas) is an African-American junky who skulked around in the same rolled up pants, filthy hat and a mucky, yellow sleeveless sweater every day. He was crudely charming, his friendly and sarcastic voice a portal into the oddly symbiotic community.
Kyle Lord and Jorge Becerra struggled as cross dressers Franny and David, but kept everyone chuckling with their antics. John the café worker (Diego Arias) wore a fishnet cap, a large button-up shirt, an apron and a spot-on “Jersey Shores” accent. Joe, the macho drug dealer (Joe Martorano), was a cruddy stud with a silky deep voice. Gitalia Diferretti was impressive as Ann, the café’s resident hooker.
Lauren Yowell struggled as Darlene. She never really connected with Martorano and appeared under-rehearsed until she rebounded with a strong monologue about her life back home in Chicago, her frustration on love and her almost perfect-marriage. Yowell finally slipped into Darlene and drew in the audience.
Subtle noises of the busy city began to chime again as drug dealers, hookers and trannies all scurried into the café. Technician extraordinaire Tammy Ray kept the sounds and lights busy as a nervous New York street, but never stole the spotlight from the cast.
“Balm in Gilead” suggested a hopeless future for the less fortunate of Manhattan, demonstrating how they are forever stuck in the same cycle. SWC’s in-your-face production was a stark reminder that we need to drive our own destinies. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize recipient and three-time Tony Award nominee, seemed to offer SWC students a cautionary tale that said “stay in school and take control of your life—or some else will.”