Balm in Gilead
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 22, 2010
T. Schreiber Studio's production of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead is superlative in every way. There's not a richer or more rewarding work of theatre anywhere in town right now, certainly not for the price ($20). If, like me, you believe that Wilson is one of the great underappreciated heroes of 20th century American drama, here's a chance to reaffirm your view with a riveting production of this brilliant, early, seldom produced play. And if you're not familiar with Wilson's oeuvre, this is a splendid way to become acquainted with it. Major kudos to Terry Schreiber and his staff for keeping the lights burning not just on the obvious classics by Shakespeare and Chekhov but the contemporary ones that we just don't see enough of.
Balm in Gilead unfolds in a diner, based on a real one that Wilson frequented back in the early '60s, when the play takes place. And as soon as you are ushered into the Gloria Maddox Theatre and feast your eyes on Matt Brogan's miraculous naturalistic set, you are transported back in time to that very specific locale. From the cigarette machine along one wall to the flashing bits of neon to the plastic-upholstered stools to the faded sign above the proscenium, the world of Wilson's play is meticulously evoked. Anne Wingate's costumes further define the period and each of the many denizens of this place. Gilead is home to society's detritus for the most part: as we enter, the stage is filled with types that would become archetypal by the time Midnight Cowboy got made at the end of the decade: junkies, transvestites, prostitutes, hustlers, dealers—sad people, getting by, desperate or almost that while somehow weirdly hopeful in spite of it all because, with only one or two exceptions, everyone of these people is still young, 30 at the most. Director Peter Jensen fills the diner with life with these folks from the moment we come in until the moment we leave. In fact, it feels like they'll still be there after we go home.
The play happens over a period of a week or so, ending on Halloween. There's not what you'd call a story; just slices of moments in the lives of these unremarkable people—Frank, the diner's owner; Franny, a transvestite prostitute; Tig, a hustler; Xavier, a drug dealer; and many others. There is a focus, one that becomes clearer as the play spins forward, and that's on a young, not-too-bright young woman named Darlene, who is a recent arrival from Chicago and still speaks in the broad, flat tones of the Midwest. She came to New York a little while ago, full of the usual dreams, but now she's supporting herself on the street. In the diner she meets Joe, a young man in trouble, and we sense the maybe she thinks he'll be able to help her, at least for now. And he kind of does; but then his own circumstances catch up with him (I don't want to give away too much, but I'll tell you that Joe has decided to take up selling drugs as his current profession).
Watching from the sidelines are a passel of a drifters and a quartet of busking street singers; watching from up close is Ann, a prostitute who though older and wiser than most of the others has not lost her humanity, even as its trappings are being stripped away from her by ill fortune or bad choices or whatever. And omnipresent, though not necessarily observing, are Babe, a junkie who spends most of the play slumped over the counter in a stupor, and Fick, a homeless junkie of the kind you've seen yourself on Manhattan streets, muttering endlessly to himself. Sometimes Wilson turns down the volume around Fick so we can hear what he's saying, and what's he's seeing is what everyone is Balm in Gilead is saying, fundamentally: "I get scared as hell, man, walking down around here, I mean, I can't protect myself or nothing man. You know what I mean? You know? I mean if I had these couple of big buddies....I could—like, if you walked around with these buddies, I mean you could do, man—you could do anything..."
The play's aching center comes in Act Two, in an early evening scene when Darlene and Ann and for all intents and purposes alone in the diner, before the regulars have turned up. What we discover here is that Darlene, like all of us, needs more than anything else to have someone hear her. And Ann, like all of us, needs someone to hear.
Brogan's set revolves (!) and it needs to because Wilson's play is circular. Time moves on but nothing changes, even though some things change. Jensen's realization of Wilson's profoundly human theme here is exquisite.
The company he's assembled is without peer on any stage in NYC right now; these 29 actors inhabit their roles viscerally. All of the characters in the play's foreground are brilliantly played: Jonathan Wilde is sympathetic yet seedy as Joe, and Belle Caplis gets Darlene's essential guileless dumbness exactly right. Jill Bianchini is ineffably moving as Ann. Others I took particular note of include Lawrence Crimlis as Dopey and Jordan Feltner as Rake, two of the druggy hangers-on outside the diner who occasionally break the fourth wall to chat with us; Olivia Rorick, a tough lesbian who does battle for her woman; Esteban Benito as Tig; and Ian Campbell Dunn, who is compelling and repellent as Fick, that guy we always try to get away from when we see him on a street corner or wandering into a dive like this one.
I end with Fick because he's the emblem of Wilson's most important idea here, which is that no matter what we do we can't get away from the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-we people, least of all here in New York. Balm in Gilead gives them voice and lets us hear and see them—clear-eyed and unsentimentally and honestly.