Sunday, November 3, 2019

Balm In Gilead (1989)

"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson, directed by Dennis L. Dalen
(Ohio University School of Theatre, 1989)
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

- Jeremiah 8:22

“‘Disintegration’ is the best album ever!”
- Kyle Broflovski, South Park
Nineteen Eighty-Nine was the greatest year in musical history. This is a point of some debate, but I know it to be true. Psychologists have explained that each individual believes the music released in one’s twenty-first year will generally be regarded as superior to all others.

But come on, Paul’s Boutique, Three Feet High and Rising, Deep, Pretty Hate Machine, I could go on. Disintegration is indeed the best album ever, and well describes my own psyche at the end of my third year in college, when it was released.

I had gone from second-year golden boy to third-year pariah, and started my fourth-year in perhaps the most mentally correct place I have ever found myself. I learned that I need to get my professional shit together and was ready to just bear down and work until graduation.*

The undergraduate production that fall was Balm In Gilead by Lanford Wilson, a production which opened thirty years ago tonight. An ideal play if you want to cast as many people as possible, Wilson’s work is a hipster fantasia taking place in and around a twenty-hour diner frequented by the addicted, sex workers, and also thieves, hustlers, and criminals.

Joe (Peter Voinovich) and Darlene (Susan Hobrath)
All my best friends, my contemporaries, were in this production (except Jules, who was across the alley, performing in Hurlyburly) and we all underwent a deep, focused investigation of the world of heroin users, expending the kind of time on research that was so plentiful at school, even if we were unaware of it.

We had scheduled a meeting with a therapist at the campus addiction recovery center. I knew absolutely nothing about heroin, save for having watched Sid & Nancy. What I learned became quite valuable, as I will soon point out.

We did not need to study the time period, because director Denny Dalen did not set it in any specific time period, or to be more accurate, we were each from different eras, as though we were walking through some kind of purgatory.

Larry was a 70s street hustler, with picked out Afro, Pete a Miami Vice styled wannabe kingpin in a blazer and T-shirt. Ricky in all-white disco attire, Susan a 60s flower-child, Lisa a hard-boiled 1950s waitress with small apron and snood.

Me, I was the narrator, an addict named Dopey in a mid-80s Deep Purple T-shirt and a high school varsity jacket. My long hair ratted out and my first real beard, I have deeply warm feelings about this costume. Much love to designer Tavia DeFelice.

The script is very challenging to read, as several conversations can be happening at once. You had to say your line in the order it appears on the page, but you might be responding to something someone said three lines back. But the more we did it, the more we heard it, and the more it became like a kind of word jazz.

I remember the week leading up to opening was particularly tough. Denny had something for everyone, and more for some than others. The underclassmen were a pain, as they debated every observation Denny had for them, responding with some explanation for how the way they were doing it made sense.

There's a saying. "Take the note." Don't argue with me. Do it.

One night, before we started in with notes, someone speculated on how long notes were going to go, and how wearying it all was.

Self as Dopey
“Not for David,” said one of the second-years. giving me the side-eye. “He never gets any notes.”

I was a little too quick to respond. “No, I don't. But if I did I’d be sure to pitch a fit about them.”

It got better. Denny was not happy with the penultimate dress, and everyone knew it.

He said, “David is the only person on this stage who knows where he’s coming from and where he’s going to,” or words to that effect.

I don't usually remember compliments, but I remember that. A couple years ago, when posting about Greg Vovos' play, How To Be a Respectable Junkie, I recounted my experience in preparing for this play, and how close study of the text and an understanding of the effects of heroin made it possible for me to pick apart the threads of conversation and develop a clear map of  (as the man said) where I was coming from. Where I was headed to.

Check out the post, the playwright makes it all crystal clear.

So yeah, I was proud of myself, for being the professional, for embodying a whole character and being confident about it. It has been a very long time since I have had the opportunity to dive so deeply into a character.

But the whole production was like that, it was practically immersive. Balm was staged in the Form, a deeply thrust stage. The set (Daniel N. Denhart, designer) inspired by Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the non-present walls of the diner clearly defined by light (James A. Gage, designer) all organey warm inside, and bluishly cold out.

The script is a symphony of despair, one that repeats night after night, as we lounged about the set, crouching in corners, shivering, when we weren’t on. Smoking live cigarettes. Spitting.
DOPEY: (turns to face the audience) Are you getting any of this?
And who knows. Maybe I could have been an actor.

"Balm In Gilead" by Lanford Wilson and directed by Dennis L. Dalen, at the Forum Theater at Ohio University, November 3 - 11, 1989.

*Side Note: Fall Quarter 1989 I had roles in three productions, the mainstage and two fourth year studio plays, whereas all other fourth years were in only two. In addition to Dopey I also played the Fire Chief in Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and in Tennessee Williams' "The Gnädiges Fräulein," the Cockalooney Bird.

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