Handsome Half and I have been spending time in San Diego. It’s been on personal business, but we’ve still found time for cultural events. Gladly, two of those events included some theater. Cygnet Theater, in Old Town, was running a Sam Shepard festival, allowing us to see his Fool for Love. And San Diego Musical Theatre, in North Park (close to where we are staying) was in mid-run of a production of Next to Normal.
Both shows were sensational.
We’ll take them in chronological order.
FOOL FOR LOVE
Sam Shepard, according to the program notes, ranks as one of America’s top playwrights. That assessment is hard to dispute after seeing Fool for Love.
This claustrophobic one-act is set in a seedy motel room in Outer Backwater, USA. Cowboy Eddie (Francis Gercke) has just tracked down his errant girlfriend, May (Carla Harting), who is definitely not happy to see him. Yet, as much as she hates to see him, she can’t seem to live without him. And Eddie has a history of disappearing for months before reappearing. Theirs is a volatile, full-throttle relationship, with much deeper bonds than even they imagine. Complicating this mess is the impending arrival of May’s date, Martin (Manny Fernandez), and the mysterious presence of an Old Man, (Antonio TJ Johnson) who has his own take on their history together.
Shepard’s plays deal with the complexity of reality vs memory, and this one takes that concept and lays it wide open, to the extent that all we’re left with is the reality of the illusion of what we think is real.
Heady stuff that, but Shepard makes this point accessible to all, and this production is so well done those its power reverberates. Not only are the actors first-rate but so are the production values: Jessica Johns’ Costumes and the effective set by Artistic Director Sean Murray. But, most effective is the sound design by Matt Lescault-Wood, with doors banging shut like jail cells and trucks exploding in rattling proximity; and Conor Mulligan’s lighting.
Shepard’s world here is extreme: claustrophobic and frightening in its complex mystery. He paints us as primal animals, desperately trying to survive. He’s the predator, taking us by the throat, and we can’t walk away, just like his characters.
NEXT TO NORMAL NO NORMAL PLAY
Next to Normal was playing at their San Diego Musical Theatre, a short walk from where we were staying, so we went. This show, composed by Tom Kitt with Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is a rare phenomenon, one of the few plays to win both a Best Musical Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.
Here, again, my attitude was, “OK, so prove to me you earned them.” This is not an unreasonable attitude if one bears in mind that Pulitzers for the arts don’t necessarily to go the best; the phrase is for “significant contribution” to the form.
In this case, though, Normal earned the prize because it’s also a great play. Its subject is bipolar disorder and Yorkey actually made it funny—at times, but the humor was often tempered with heartbreak, or an edge. For example, Diana (Bets Malone) finally visits a doctor. He prescribes pills, then more pills. As he recites a litany of when and how to take all these, and the rest of the small cast breaks into a chorus, singing about all the possible side effects of all the drugs. When it’s all done, Diana looks at her doctor and says, “My favorite color is Xanax.”
This is a small-scale cast of six people, who all work like troupers, singing dancing and acting, and doing a great job of it. While Malone needs to carry the show (and she succeeds) even one misstep in a cast this size would have the same effect as a broken note on a French horn. No broken notes anywhere. The actors took their moments when needed, and played the ensemble when they needed to, and the whole production unfolded smoothly: Robert J. Townsend’s long-suffering husband Dan; Natalie (Lindsay Joan), the angst-riddled teen-aged daughter; Eric Michael Parker as Natalie’s awkward suitor; Geno Carr, in mutiple hats (the second-toughest role, played equally smoothly); and Eddie Egan as Gabe, the son who’s the key to the entire explosive story.
And explosive it is, drawing gasps from the audience. Normal is, in its essence, the oldest form of theater: art as catharsis. Gabe, the teen-aged son that Diana talks to, actually died at 10 months. Diana, caught in that indescribable pain, couldn’t let go and allowed her memories of her son to grow up. Dan, for all his love, wasn’t protecting her from the truth as much as he was protecting himself. All Natalie can do, born and raised after Gabe’s death, is thrash her way through this poisonous spiderweb of an existence.
All the meds, psychotherapy, even the electroshock therapy, don’t work until Diana can accept the unacceptable fact and send her son away. Dan has to live with his complicity, and Natalie takes a brave step and trusts her new-found suitor. Irreparable damage has been done, but now healing can begin for all of them.
Kitt and Yorkey understand this intimately and, aided and abetted by this superior production, bring us a story heartbreaking, sad, and, ultimately full of hope. Next to Normal most definitely deserves all its awards, and this high quality production does it justice.
Both shows are closed now but if you’re ever in San Diego, both Cygnet and SDMT (soon to move into a bigger space downtown) deserve time for a visit.