Theatre review: Balm in Gilead is designed to make you feel uncomfortable

Talk about going out with a bang, the students (and audiences) at Langara’s Studio 58 get a workout in the final show of their season in an immersive production of Lanford Wilson’s provocative Balm in Gilead.

Written in 1964, Balm in Gilead is set in a New York greasy spoon that is a magnet for the city’s underbelly and those that have found themselves on harder times, usually from drugs.  A temporary respite from the real world outside, the diner becomes a temporary haven.  At the center of the chaos is Joe (Chris Cope) and Darlene (Masae Day) who find each other: one looking for escape and both chasing elusive human connections.

Finding inspiration after spending time in New York cafes, watching and listening to conversations, Wilson has constructed a play that at times sees an intersection of those conversations.  As we are led to our seats inside set designer Naomi Sider’s seedy diner, the story of its inhabitants quickly unfolds around us, often at the same time.  With its ebb and flow, by design we are only able to catch snippets of conversations, fights and mundane life that are playing out throughout the space.

In its first thirty minutes I was scribbling on my notepad that although a heightened reality, the only way this could become more “real” would have been to stage this as a site-specific piece somewhere in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Unfortunately for all of its gritty reality and the uncomfortable feeling that its voyeuristic setting creates in its first half hour, there is an agitation that builds making it difficult to re-focus. As a result, much of the first scene as Joe and Darlene first meet is lost, making any connection to their relationship and their characters difficult.

Chris Cope gives his Joe a wonderful balance of street-smart bravado and vulnerability and his natural delivery allows us to be drawn in even as his character is less than inviting.  Masae Day as Darlene doesn’t fare as well though as she tended towards a monotone that may have been meant to indicate naiveté, but comes across a bit forced.  In the final few moments of her second act monologue though she found the heart of her character.

Standouts in this cast of 27 include Stephanie Izsak who, as she listens to Darlene’s monologue, conveys an understanding and depth to her characterization with only a few simple movements and gestures.  Erik Gow rules the diner with an iron fist but with an obvious understanding of the reality of his customer’s lives.  Maxamillian Wallace is a bundle of tweeked out nervousness as Xavier, Patrick Mercado as the play’s narrator knows how to make the most of a line and Lili Beaudoin opens act two with an excruciatingly beautiful performance.  As well, Julie Leung gives a squirm-worthy portrayal of a junkie shooting up at the top of the show and Anthea Morritt knows it is the small things that can bring a character to life.

Julia Leung, Anthea Morritt and Jessica Ross-Howkins in a scene of the Studio 58 production of Balm in Gilead.
Julia Leung, Anthea Morritt and Jessica Ross-Howkins in a scene of the Studio 58 production of Balm in Gilead.

With its massive cast, Director Bob Frazer does an excellent job as both traffic cop and arbiter of what takes focus, finding amongst the frenzy a number of brilliant nuggets to highlight.  In his program notes he talks about how, like the playwright, his cast spent time in the DTES observing and listening and it shows with each of his actors bringing a uniqueness to their characters.  Costume designer Connie Hosie and make-up special effect artist Jodi-Lynn Boulton help immensely although I would have preferred more subtlety, especially as the cast is so up close and personal.

A cacophony of forgotten lives, Balm in Gilead pushes its actors and audience to their limits, but we should expect nothing less from a theatre training ground like Studio 58.  While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (or cup of Joe if you prefer), just remember that if you do find yourself at the diner there is a 50 cent minimum if you sit at a booth.

3 Out of 5 StarsBalm in Gilead

By Lanford Wilson.  Directed by Bob Frazer.  A Langara College Studio 58 production.  On stage at Studio 58 through April 7, 2013.  Visit http://studio58.ca for tickets and information.

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