Latino Theater Company appears to be Great Plains-obsessed right now. At its Los Angeles Theatre Center, an Oklahoma-set play is in Theatre 3 — Marcus Gardley’s the road weeps, the well runs dry. In the smaller Theatre 4 is a Kansas-set play, Lina Gallegos’ Wild in Wichita.
By far the bigger of these two productions is the road weeps. By far the better of the two is Wild in Wichita.
The road weeps is part of an elaborate “rolling world premiere” that has resulted in separate, previous productions of the play at two other theaters, with a fourth scheduled after the LATC production — although all four get to claim they were part of the “world premiere.” However, “rolling workshop” would be a more accurate designation of the project. As Gardley told LA STAGE Times,
“I’ve had to change scripts for each production…I’ve changed the plays to fit each community. It became a natural vision to cater it to each locale. The LA show is the most different from the others. There are new scenes and a new ending. I almost rewrote the show for LA. Playwrights very seldom get to work on plays all the time. For me this has been a great education.”
Does this mean that the LA version, produced by Latino Theater Company, somehow refers to LA or to Latinos in any way? No. The play is still set in the Oklahoma community of Freetown (now Wewoka), which was settled in the 19th century by Freedmen, aka Black Seminoles — a group of full-blooded Seminoles who absorbed free black ex-slaves in Florida into their community before they were all exiled to the plains by the US government (remember how Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson deals with the Trail of Tears that was part of this exodus?)
From the evidence on stage, the play hasn’t been “catered to each locale” so much as it has been repeatedly re-worked as Gardley continues to wrestle with making its many parts coalesce. It’s possible that “all the time” that he has been given to work on this play, which has an initial copyright date of 2004, has in fact prevented him from feeling any urgency about editing the play down to its essence.
Performances of the current production last almost three hours. The play jumps back and forth in time, primarily between 1850 and 1866 but also to earlier years. Some of the 11 actors play multiple parts (this is written into the script — it’s not simply a decision imposed by LATC or chosen by the current director Shirley Jo Finney). This doubling or tripling generates confusion unless you’ve carefully read the cast list before the play starts. It’s also helpful to at least glance at the chart in the program that indicates, to some extent, how characters are related to each other.
If you think the all-lower-case spelling of the title suggests that the play will be subtle and low-key, you’re in for a shock. The play has so much turmoil swirling among so many characters that it instead suggests the phrase “soap opera.” The new ending that was written for the LA production looks as if it must be the most hysterical denouement yet — but then I didn’t see the earlier attempts. The language is more self-consciously poetic than that of most soap operas, but it seldom soars into genuine lyricism, and it’s sometimes undercut by anachronistic turns of phrase that sound way too contemporary.
The road weeps is intended to be the second play in a trilogy, but the first play in the group hasn’t been produced, and the third hasn’t been finished. Maybe part two would resonate more strongly — or at least cohere more quickly — if we had already seen part one. But after seeing part two, seeing part one looks less appealing than it might have looked if it had been first in line in the order of production.
Meanwhile, in the 99-seat Theatre 4, up the stairs from the road weeps, Wild In Wichita is much more conventional, less ambitious, and, yes, less pretentious.. It has only four actors playing only four characters — Carmela (Denise Blasor, who also directs) and Joaquin (Sal Lopez), who meet at a Wichita nursing home and discover late-blooming romance — plus Joaquin’s adult daughter (Crissy Guerrero) and her counterpart, Carmela’s son (Alberto de Diego).
Carmela and Joaquin are surprised by their own feelings for each other — which of course start with initial hostility from Carmela that’s gradually melted by Joaquin — but anyone who has seen other comedies about aging men and women who are thrown together in senior centers will be less surprised.
However, it’s a likably spry little comedy, thanks not only to the charms of Lopez’s performance as he gradually insinuates Joaquin into the disdainful Carmela’s heart, but also to the cultural clash that’s going on here — her background is Puerto Rican, his is Mexican. Some of their more spirited arguments are fueled by arguments over different tastes in food, music, and Spanish pronunciation — in a setting where they feel completely isolated from other Spanish speakers.
Not that the play is in Spanish. Bilingual Foundation of the Arts presented it earlier this year in Spanish (and briefly in English). This mostly-English production might reach a wider audience.
Quite late in the play, we learn that Joaquin is 73 and that Carmela is 70. Maybe it’s because I’m increasingly aware of age lately, but Lopez and Blasor look younger than 73 and 70, especially considering that these particular geezer characters have had health crises that require nursing home assistance at such relatively young ages.
Because no previous year is mentioned in the program as the date when the play is supposed to occur, I initially assumed that it was taking place in the present day — and in 2013, Lopez in particular looks too young to have been in the Korean War, as Joaquin was. A 73-year-old today would have been about 13 in 1953. But then I looked at a copy of the script, which says it’s set in 2009 — a little detail that should have been in the program. (Apparently, however, the script has been slightly updated since then. Joaquin speaks glowingly about the ability of Obamacare, which passed in 2010, to help these two as they age. Yet this also sounds slightly discordant. Wouldn’t these two rely on Medicare, not Obamacare?)
But I’m being picky here — Wild in Wichita is a lot of fun, especially in comparison to the surfeit of angst in the road weeps, downstairs.
the road weeps, the well runs dry, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Nov 17. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
Wild in Wichita, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., LA. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sunday. www.thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
Another glimpse of old age — but without the two-oldsters-in-love formula seen in Wild in Wichita — has opened at South Coast Repertory.
Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is primarily a depiction of 91-year-old Vera ( Jenny O’Hara) who has lived for decades in her Greenwich Village apartment, and her 21-year-old grandson Leo (Matt Caplan), who has just completed a long-anticipated cross-country bicycle excursion. Upon his arrival in New York, he winds up at his grandmother’s apartment in the middle of the night, after failing to find shelter in the arms of Bec (Rebecca Mozo), whom he thought was his girlfriend.
Both Vera and Leo consider themselves iconoclasts of their respective generation. Vera was a card-carrying Communist, and perhaps still is, although she doesn’t get to many rallies or picket lines these days. Leo has rebelled against his parents by rejecting college in favor of free-lance adventures — of which the bicycle trip is only the latest — which apparently are financed by his parents from whom he feels so estranged. He calls himself a “hippie” at one point. Although I don’t get the impression that most contempoary 21-year-olds would use that word, perhaps he feels that it’s a term his grandmother would appreciate.
This play received the Obie (Off-Broadway) Award for best new American play at the 2012 ceremony, but don’t let that inflate your expectations too high. It’s a nuanced but definitely low-key study of two characters at the opposite ends of adulthood, their commonalities and their contrasts. It’s so steeped in realism that it doesn’t bother much with the creation of big scenes or effects. Like the actors in Wild in Wichita, O’Hara is much younger than her character (O’Hara’s real mother is 96, she said in an interview), but she succeeds as evoking a sharp 91-year-old with considerable fidelity.
Leo’s soon-to-be ex-flame Bec and his latest passing hook-up Amanda (Klarissa Mesee) have a few good moments. But Leo’s adopted sister Lily, back home in Minnesota, is represented only as a barely audible offstage voice on the other end of Leo’s Skype connection — an odd scene that is probably supposed to represent the lack of tangible connection these days but which is also somewhat frustrating for audience members who are trying to figure out why it’s there. And Herzog appears to have been so determined not to be sentimental that the ending is one of those uneventful non-endings where you might not be sure if it’s time to applaud until someone else starts clapping.
4000 Miles, South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Wed 7:30 pm, Thu-Fri 8 pm. Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
I saw two biographical musicals about famous people on back-to-back days last week.
The new When You Wish at Freud Playhouse is about Walt Disney. But it seemingly lacks the rights to use Disney material that isn’t in the public domain — hence the titular song “When You Wish,” which apparently is designed to suggest “When You Wish Upon a Star” but comes off as a pleasant but oh-so-derivative knock-off.
Much of the show comes off that way, despite a lot of talent onstage (Tim Martin Gleason of Sleepless in Seattle plays Disney) and behind the scenes (Larry Raben directs). Dean McClure’s book is uninspired. It attempts to check off so many chapters of Disney’s life, so briefly, that some of them are thrown away in one or two sentences — such as Disney’s experience in post-World War I France and a youthful love.
It begins and ends with the triumphant opening of Disneyland, 10 years before Disney died. By contrast, Philip Glass’ opera The Perfect American, which is embroiled in controversy over whether it will ever appear in the adult Disney’s home town of LA, apparently uses Disney’s death as a framing device. Sounds as if When You Wish might end up as a footnote to the history of the Glass opera.
The next evening after I saw When You Wish, night, I re-visited Evita, about Eva Perón, in the new touring version of the London/New York revival directed by Michael Grandage. It’s a handsome, evocative production, enhanced by Rob Ashford’s tango-centric choreography and blistering but glamorous performances by Caroline Bowman as Eva, Josh Young as Che and Sean MacLaughlin as Juan Perón.
Although Eva Perón accomplished nothing in her life on the lasting scale of Walt Disney, it’s evident that Evita is going to last a lot longer than When You Wish. Perhaps it’s helpful that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t have to tiptoe around the sensibilities of their subject’s descendants, which apparently is a requirement that afflicts those who would musically dramatize the story of Walt Disney.
When You Wish, Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Avenue, Westwood. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sunday. www.whenyouwishmusical.com. 310-825-2101.
Evita, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Closes Nov 10. www.HollywoodPantages.com. 800-982-2787.