Two lost ships on a stormy sea, one with no sails and one with no rudder. Ain’t it just great, ain’t it just grand?  We’ve got each udder!”
–Joe Hardy and Lola
Damn Yankees

Just like Joe and Lola, Arturo and Catherine, the hero and heroine of Robert Schenkkan’s By The Waters Of Babylon, are two very lost souls. The former is a Cuban refugee gardener doing day labor in Austin, Texas, and the latter is the widow who hires him to take care of the mess in her garden because “if I don’t get this mess cleared up, I’m going to blow my brains out.”  (I choose this quote deliberately.)

At first, the raspy-voiced, folksy Catherine seems to be nothing more than a talkative 40ish woman with time on her hands and Arturo merely a Spanish-speaking worker she hired out of a lineup of Spanish-speaking workers hoping for a day’s pay.

Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Catherine soon discovers that Arturo is far more than the Latino immigrant with limited English skills she initially takes him to be. Before long, Arturo too begins to realize that Catherine’s cheerful chatter hides deep waters of sadness which match his own.

First, though, there’s that garden to take care of.  “Clear away the debris,” Catherine tells Arturo.  “Lay waste to the wasteland, but save anything that’s worth saving.” The final result should be “something between Versailles and Central Park,” she wisecracks.

Soon enough, the place looks like a hurricane has blown through it, but interesting discoveries have been made.  A stone bench hidden under the brush. A discarded doll named Betty Sue.  Honeysuckle.  Wild roses. Wild mint.

The latter is just the thing needed to make mojitos, a drink which Catherine’s parents probably enjoyed on their honeymoon in Arturo’s native Cuba. Before long, Arturo and Catherine are bonding over cocktails in the garden, the rum loosening Catherine’s lips.  No need to worry what the neighbors will think of the widow getting drunk with her gardener in her garden, she tells Arturo. “I’m already shunned.  No one talks to me or will be seen with me. I’m like an untouchable.”

Arturo wonders why on earth her neighbors would consider her “una sucia,” (to which, Catherine tells him, he can add slut, crone, and harpy).  It’s simple, replies Catherine. “Mostly it’s this idea that I killed Edgar,” she explains, though her husband’s death from a heart attack has to be considered some kind of miracle since he “didn’t have a heart.”  It doesn’t help that Catherine is somewhat lacking in social skills. Like the tools in her shed, Catherine tells him, her people skills are a little rusty.

When the conversation turns to Cuba, Catherine is surprised to learn that it’s a country of close to 100% literacy, that health care there is not only for the rich, and that although there’s no place Arturo would rather be, “the most beautiful place in the world” is an island he can never return to, an island where the Communist government cut the heart out of his novel leaving him empty inside.

“Why did you escape?” wonders Catherine. “Who says I have?” retorts Arturo, who carries oceans of guilt…for his friends and for his father, he says.

Catherine has her own guilt, and though Arturo may be an exile from his native land, she feels like an exile in her own country. As for Catherine’s self-deprecating humor, what better way to hide her own insecurities?

As By The Waters Of Babylon moves forward in real time, these two lonely lost souls strip away each other’s protective layers, seeing in one another kindred spirits and a hope that together in the dark they can keep the shadows away.

Schenkkan’s script is too smart and often quite funny to be a downer, and though much pain is exposed as Arturo and Catherine lay bare their souls, there are equal quantities of hope and joy and salvation.

In Demián Bichir and Shannon Cochran, director Richard Seyd has found about as perfect a pair of unlikely lovers as can be imagined. The hunky Bechir (of TV’s Weeds) is a Latin lover worn rough around the edges, whose painful, heart-wounding memories can be seen in his eyes and heard in his voice.  Shannon Cochran at first seems such an ingratiating (albeit more than a bit garrulous) salt-of-the-earth woman that when she finally lets out the agony that’s been torturing her, it’s a primal scream. These are two superb performances that could not be improved upon.

Set designer Michael Ganio has created a jungle of a garden which magically disappears as Arturo chops it away, with gorgeous rear projections (by Jason H. Thompson) which are both scenically and emotionally impactful. York Kennedy’s lighting design is equally striking as is Jon Gottlieb’s sound design. Frances Kenny’s costumes are perfect choices for each character.

By The Waters Of Babylon is the kind of play which could work equally well in a tiny theater with virtually no set design as it does at the Geffen.  Still, there is something thrilling about seeing it staged on such a grand scale.  Ultimately, though, the play rests on the shoulders of its two actors, and with Bichir and Cochran in the leads, By The Waters Of Babylon is a powerful experience indeed.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 6, 2008
Photos: Michael Lamont

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