‘Balm in Gilead’ at Griffin: In one desolate corner of society, hope has a fresh face and short life
Review: “Balm in Gilead” by Lanford Wilson, produced by Griffin Theatre Company at The Den Theatre, through April 19. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The vibe might be described as frenetic inertia. At this 1960s New York City café, the locale of Lanford Wilson’s play “Balm in Gilead,” drug pushers and drug users, prostitutes and assorted other low-lifes and lost souls convene, or perhaps the word is collide, in an ever-simmering froth of collective despair. It’s a youthful scene, yet emptiness and delusion form a vista of concentrated sadness, and it is etched deeply into Griffin Theatre’s production directed by Jonathan Berry.
“Balm in Gilead,” Wilson’s first full-length play, which was experimental in its stretches of overlapping dialogue, has strong Chicago connections. Despite a good initial run off-off-Broadway in 1965, the play didn’t get a major production until a 1981 revival by Steppenwolf Theatre, which took it up again in 1984 in a joint venture with Wilson’s Circle Repertory Company directed by John Malkovich.
In its unvarnished perspective on a desperate slice of society, this portrait of down-and-outers stuck on a hellish treadmill has some clear precedents. Wilson’s play evokes Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (first produced in 1946), except that O’Neill’s pipe-dreaming boozers have graduated to drugs in “Gilead.” Perhaps a closer blueprint is Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” (1953), where a similar mélange of the hopeless assuage their misery with dreams of getting out.
But “Balm in Gilead” – the ironic title refers to an ancient perfumed cure-all — also harkens directly back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” (1944), where the damned don’t quite grasp that they’ve condemned themselves and there is no way out.
For the most part, the café denizens of “Gilead” are so profoundly lost that the idea of something better doesn’t even occur to them. The exceptions, amid a swarm of some 30 characters, are two young people: Joe, a minor drug dealer, has ventured into heavy traffic in an ill-judged bid to become a bigger player; and Darlene, a nice girl just arrived from Chicago, is looking for greener pastures than she left behind. Green, in the metaphorical sense of wholesome prospects and spiritual nourishment, is a hue notably absent from this tawdry scene.
These two seekers precipitate from the fog-like density of the larger picture, which director Berry orchestrates (there is no other word) to a pitch at once fevered and precise. Wilson talked about how, as a young playwright, he honed his craft by writing five-part dialogue intended to be delivered all at once. The simultaneous speeches of “Balm in Gilead” achieve that level of rigor and more: The extended opening scene – which wells to life both inside and outside the café — is one amazing blitz of characters chattering, arguing, pleading, buying and selling. What’s more amazing is that we actually begin to filter bits of personality and relationships from that aural morass.
But soon we zoom in on Joe (Japhet Balaban) and Darlene (Ashleigh Lathrop) sharing a table. (Set designer Dan Stratton has fashioned a café straight out of that yesteryear.) Joe is a smooth talker with a discerning eye who seems to be his own man, above the frayed gang; Darlene the newbie, impressed by this good-looking guy, is just trying to take in the whole crazy scene. What happens next might have been borrowed from Puccini’s “La bohème.” Two poor young people meet, sparks fly and they repair to her little apartment across the street.
Balaban offers a regular Joe, mild mannered and confident. Then we see that self-assurance dissolve swiftly and chillingly as Balaban’s would-be big shot, suddenly looking as naïve as his new girlfriend, finds himself in way over his head with some serious toughs. In parallel, we also watch café regular Ann, an ex-school teacher from Minnesota turned prostitute (Cyd Blakewell in a poignant performance), slide from laughing pro to just plain worn-out woman. In this dark circle, death is a relative concept.
Yet the all-encompassing embrace of Wilson’s tragedy fully registers only as it’s distilled into the petite form of Lathrop’s Darlene. In a famously radical shift, Act II begins in near silence. Gone is the hubbub, gone the crowd. Now it’s this buoyant girl seated at the counter with the hooker Ann. For the next 20 minutes, Darlene spins out a prodigious, poetic monologue recounting her life and the wedding that didn’t happen.
It is a tour de force, an actor’s dream. Lathrop delivers the goods in a narrative of painfully applied cheer – punctuated by bleak pauses, her face shadowed, the only sound another cracking of a vulnerable heart.
But anyway, that was then. Now she’s found Joe. Who knew? Who would have believed it?
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com