Balm In Gilead, Lanford Wilson’s gritty slice of the lives of a couple dozen addicts, hookers, hustlers, pimps, and thieves has been enthusiastically lauded by theater critics since its 1965 premiere and its roles welcomed by actors eager for a walk on the wild side. Having now spent two and a half hours with these largely unsympathetic, offputting folks, however, this reviewer does not particularly share their enthusiasm.

That’s not to say that the young actors of Coeurage Theatre Company don’t give the piece their all. In fact, under Meredith Hinckley Schmidt’s direction, there is uniformly fine work being done on the stage of the Actor’s Circle Theatre. Still, despite the cast’s best efforts, I found little to care about in this ragtag group of societal outcasts, partly due to the characters’ unlikability, partly due to a style of writing I found self-consciously artsy and off-putting.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ similarly set and peopled In Arabia We’d All Be Kings is a favorite of mine and won both Best Drama and Best Cast Scenies when the Elephant Theatre Company presented it back in 2007. Guirgis’ script and characters had me caring about even the most wretched of the bunch, so it’s not that a play about junkies and whores can’t work for this reviewer, and I would have enjoyed seeing the Coeurage team’s take on those Hell’s Kitchen denizens.

The first five to ten minutes or so of Balm In Gilead fill the stage with two-thirds of its cast, either seated at tables or standing around a dingy café presided over by manager John (Ryan Wagner) and waitress Kay (Sara Perry), each and every one of them carrying on simultaneous conversations at the same volume. Eventually, though, volume levels do begin to vary, allowing greater focus on one group or another, though lines continue to overlap as that focus ping-pongs back and forth from group to group. Still, it takes quite a while for us to begin to figure out just who is who, and which of the cast of twenty-three will carry the bulk of Wilson’s multiple storylines.

Characters include small-time drug dealer Joe (Jesse Steccato), hoping to do business with a talked-about but unseen local bigshot named Chuckles; Darlene (Valorie Curry), a recent Chicago-to-New York transplant not averse to turning tricks; junky Dopey (Zack Kraus), who breaks the fourth wall to provide a running commentary throughout; Fick (Joe Calarco), one hot mess of a druggie, though hardly the only one in the greasy spoon; Ann (Délé Ogundiran), a would-be teacher turned been-there, done-that whore; ungainly transvestite hooker Franny (Amir Levi); sociopathic druggies Tig and Bob (Cyrus Wilcox and James Edward Shippy), always on the lookout for fresh meat for their stable of hustlers and whores; particularly nasty drug peddler Xavier (Matt Valladares), and rent-boy Rake (Joseph O’Malley). There’s also Rust (Jessica Blair), Babe (Corina Boettger), Ernesto (Willie Fortes), Frank (JP Giuliotti), Tim (TJ Marchbank), Stranger (Matt O’Neill), Carlo (Fernando Ramirez), Martin (Deven Simonson), Judy (Keiko Suda), Terry (Malika Williams), and David (understudy Kyle Wills). And if this cast of characters doesn’t already seem complicated enough, the show’s playbill shortchanges its audience by not providing headshots, so you’ll most likely get home and have little idea who was who.

It does at least become clear eventually that Darlene and Joe’s budding relationship, which starts out with hot sex on day (or night) one, will be the play’s central focus. Will Joe manage to survive in the cutthroat world of drug dealing? Will Darlene manage to forget the man that got away? Will the two manage to escape the hell that surrounds them? I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you.

Following the hodgepodge of characters that fill the stage throughout Act One, Balm In Gilead’s second act opens with a nearly empty bar, allowing Darlene to bend Ann’s ear for a full twenty minutes with a monolog that you keep thinking has got to end soon … but doesn’t. The gang then all return for the grand finale, one which includes a pivotal moment that for some reason gets repeated three times in rapid succession and ends with a single character in the spotlight looking sadder but not necessarily wiser for what has just transpired.

It is impossible to fault the work being done by the production’s highly committed cast (though I did find the otherwise excellent Curry’s look too waiflike for Darlene).  Also, though I remained largely uninvolved in Wilson’s characters’ lives and at times rather antsy, particularly during Darlene’s interminable monolog, I can’t honestly say that I was bored.

Jenna Pletcher’s excellent scenic design is suitably grungy as are Karen Fix Curry’s terrific costumes. Calarco’s atmospheric sound design and Michelle Stann’s equally mood-enhancing lighting are both kudo-worthy. TJ Marchbank has fight choreographed some believable bitch slaps. Props by stage manager Rebecca Eisenberg, Noah Gillett, and Perry are realistic and period appropriate.

Lanford Wilson aficionados or fans of Balm In Gilead in particular should not be dissuaded by this review from seeing Coeurage Theatre’s production. Those whose tastes run similar to mine will probably prefer to wait for a revival of In Arabia We’d All Be Kings.

Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 19, 2012
Photos: Laura Crow

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