Dear God

Dear James
Lyric Theatre

Escape from Happiness
Bald Alice Theatre Company

"OH LORD, IF it's wrong to be the female companion to a priest... then why does it feel so right?" So asks Agatha, the devout heroine of Dear James. Ah, sweet Jesus, the many times I've asked that same question myself.

OK, not really. But having seen priests and nuns fall madly in love with all sorts of people, I find the line pretty funny--never mind that it borrows from one of the hoariest of pop music cliches. Still, the conundrum of forced celibacy is a valid theme for a play, and hardly presents the biggest problem for this awkward production. Adapted for the stage and directed by Sally Childs, Dear James is based on the novel by Jon Hassler in which an Irish priest and a retired Minnesota schoolteacher exchange many air-mail letters, indulge in a few platonic encounters, and try to manage their feelings for each other.

Interesting premise aside, the most feeling I can manage to muster for this production is a sense of sour disappointment. For one thing, the script is a muddle of subplots that bear little relation to one another. Take Agatha's handyman friend, "French." He's a Vietnam vet who has a problem with being touched. At certain moments during the play, he stops speaking and presses his hands to his head, and we hear the rattle of artillery. Attention Class: Our Remedial Metaphor Seminar is now in session. Soon after, French is somehow seduced with little more than a wink by the next-door neighbor's daughter, traumatic disorder notwithstanding. We expect, perhaps, some kind of comparison to be drawn between the starkly different sexual attitudes of the WWII and Vietnam generations. None comes. (Though, who knows, maybe we should be thankful.) Later, when Father James decides to speak out against the Irish conflict, we cringe; turns out that an exceptionally weak parallel is drawn between that war and Vietnam.

But, except for numerous flubbed lines, the cast is not chiefly to blame for the show's problems. Nancy Gormley, who plays Agatha, is a fine actress; Ron Duffy is quite affable as James. And Chuck Deeter doesn't embarrass himself as the handyman. But despite these serviceable performances, the direction is flaccid--as a friend's acting teacher used to say, you could drive 4x4's between the actors' lines. Sexual chemistry between the leads is never demonstrated convincingly, and their blocking, of the stay-away/come-hither variety, feels obviously choreographed.

Dear James is full of such scattered disappointments and small mediocrities. Kari Holmberg, as the young vixen, is allowed to overact throughout. Her harsh readings, especially in the sexier scenes, tear at the fragile balance of the show. The Beatles' "Let It Be," played between acts, seems equally random. And canned voice-overs of James "speaking" in Agatha's head sound painfully pre-recorded. (I don't see why Duffy couldn't have read them live.) In the end, it doesn't matter that the set and costumes are thoughtfully designed.

RANDOMNESS ALSO TAKES center stage in Bald Alice's Escape from Happiness, but George Walker's play presents consistent and intentional weirdness, holding up a fun-house mirror to the chaos of an inner-city family struggling with an array of delusions. Tom, the father, is a long-haired ex-cop who abandoned the family years earlier; now, a guy who looks just like him but behaves like a vegetable lives with the family. (Jeff Tatum puts on a damn good psycho Clint Eastwood here.) Nora, the mother, pretends he's a stranger, while her whacked-out daughters try to reconcile with this virtual stranger. Gail seems sane enough, though she's married to a big, sweet, dumb guy named Junior. And Elizabeth, a lawyer who fights police brutality, tries to keep everyone safe, including her affectionate (but deeply disturbed) sister Mary Ann. When Junior gets the crap beaten out of him by two small-time crooks, a pair of detectives investigate and find drugs stashed in the basement. Things spiral hectically downward.

That all seems dreadfully complex, right? In fact, it's not. But the show drags on far too long--some three hours--with countless scenes in dire need of editing. In contrast, the relationship between the three sisters (the play's compelling dramatic core) gets too little stage time. The actors are all quite good, especially Jodi Kellogg as the mother, Ellen Apel as the lawyer, and Carolyn Pool as Mary Ann. Matt Sciple's directing is sharp as well, but none of these strengths can compensate for the script's sloppiness. The overall effect is one of unrealized potential.

Dear James runs at the Hennepin Center for the Arts (in the Illusion Theater) through October 5; call 824-9717. Escape from Happiness runs at the Cedar Riverside People's Center through September 27; call 872-9755.

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