"Walk On The Moon"
It’s been almost fifty years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Those heady summer days of 1969—Woodstock, Vietnam, protests, Nixon, and the first human landing and walk on the moon—still reverberate today. Especially in San Francisco, with last summer's 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love still being milked for nostalgic value as well as commercial profit. ACT’s latest musical, A Walk on the Moon, directed by Sheryl Kaller, music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman, with book by Pamela Gray, has been adapted from Gray’s script for the 1999 film of the same name. The musical sticks to the script, creating a nostalgic look at the late ‘60s and one woman’s (Kate Brayben as Pearl) realization of long-suborned sexual yearning, her breaking of tradition and rebelling against the family, and the eventual decision she must make, between reverting to the norm, or breaking away an exploring a different universe of adventure and love. Hence the title, as the song “Walking On The Moon” and other tunes from the show highlight, all in the context of a family vacation at a Jewish family summer camp in the Catskills in July and August of 1969, near Max Yasgut’s farm, the site of Woodstock. When the festival happens, it trips the light fantastic for Pearl, the housewife in question, as well as for other characters, throwing the camp into an uproar.
All the right elements are at work in the production. The cast is excellent, particularly Brayben, her character torn between a dull marriage to her over-worked, conventional and chauvinistic husband (Marty, played by Jonah Platt) and her attraction to the almost stereotypical “free love” hippie (and traveling blouse salesman in a van) Walker, played by Zak Resnick. Brigid O’Brien shines as Alison, Pearl’s rebellious daughter who also yearns for an alternative, as does Kerry O'Malley as Lillian, Pearl’s mother-in-law, who divines trouble in the making. Three generations of women give voice to their desires and frustrations, opening up a generation conflict. Other characters including Rhoda (Monique Hafen) as friends of Marty and Pearl lend to the local color of the summer camp—references to latkes and knishes abound, and the camp loudspeaker chips in as well. Feminist musical, 60’s sexual awakening tale, 50’s Jewish doo-wop, a cautionary tale on male chauvinism: A Walk On The Moon brings all these elements into the mix, with mixed results.
These various components never really gel. It almost feels as though this is painting by numbers. All the right elements are here: emotional solos highlighting the housewife’s dilemma, check. The weary wisdom of the mother-in-law, check. Adolescent angst and the Age of Aquarius, check. Male chauvinism, check. Catskills Jewish humor, check. The score and lyrics, by Paul Scott Goodman, serve the occasion, but rarely stand out. The book, with these different aims in mind, errs on entertaining with local color, while Pearl’s journey often feels underserviced, resulting in one-dimensional male characters (except for Walker), and a story that clicks on by without really engaging the audience. However, production values are outstanding: the lush forest and homey cabins of the camp, with a moon and stars of many moods and shades in the background, almost steal the show (designed by Donyale Werle). Similarly, Tal Yarden has designed excellent projections by Tal Yarden. Shifting stars, the vibrant moon, the psychedelic festival, scrims that descend for more projections: the light show stands out. And herein lies the problem: when the stage design and light show steal the show, Houston, we have a problem.
"A Lesson From Aloes"
Apartheid and succulents might seem like odd bedfellows, but centuries of racial oppression and violence can make metaphors reverberate. Athol Fugard’s 1980 three-character drama, A Lesson From Aloes, now playing through June 29th at San Francisco’s Z Below in the Mission, provides a searing view into how politics and race can inject suspicion, fear and madness into our lives. As a piece of theatre, it’s a must see, relating not just to South Africa and its horrible history of apartheid, but to the same deeply ingrained racial injustice which plagues our country.
Perhaps no playwright since Strindberg or O’Neill has mastered the craft and art of turning the single-set play, with a minimum of characters, into a pressure-cooker. In the two-act A Lesson From Aloes, Piet Bezuidenhout, a retired Afrikaner bus driver who now devotes his time to collecting and tending aloes, and his wife Gladys (played by Victor Talmadge and Wendy vanden Heuvel respectively) live in a simple home on the edge of Port Elizabeth, a mixed-race community where many of Fugard’s works transpire. They’ve prepared an outdoor buffet for guests, Steve Roberts and his family. Roberts, a black friend of Piet’s, recently released from jail, was imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities with Piet and others. Barred from working in his profession as a brick-layer, Steve decides to obtain a one-way exit pass for the family and emigrate to the UK. Arriving late, Steve arrives solo with a score to settle, as the friendless Piet is suspected of being an informer—a belief shared by Gladys, who suffers her own trauma. When the Security Branch seized Steve, they also searched the Bezuidenhout residence, rifling through and seizing Gladys’ diary. In Glady’s mind, her ensuing breakdown and hospitalization result directly from his culpability in the crimes of the state.
Adrian Roberts as Steve and Victor Talmadge as Piet in A Lesson From Aloes at Z Below in San FranciscoAn aloe that Piet tends to serves as a critical metaphor in the play. Tough and spiny, able to survive in the parched South African veldt just as people do, Piet cannot fit its identity into the known species. People’s racial make-up was clearly demarcated under apartheid, just as all species of the aloe genus were. But this aloe’s identity, like those of the three characters in A Lesson From Aloes, eludes easy identification. Like these prickly plants, Steve, Piet and Gladys each have their own roots—background and memories—which they draw upon to survive the rough times, with decidedly different trajectories and outcomes. But in the end—especially in the tumultuous second act when Steve arrives—the central conflict remains. Did Piet really inform on Steve? Is Piet the cause of Gladys’ madness? And what will become of Steve and family in exile?
Director Near has shaped a compelling show, with excellent performances from all three actors. Scenic design by Deb O fashions a comfy modest bungalow terrace with assorted patio furniture and plenty of aloes, a partially visible bedroom stage-left, and a scrim behind a cinder-block wall, showing the slowly changing afternoon and evening skies, marred only by a few wrinkled in the scrim and some rather abrupt lighting changes. Talmadge gives a controlled performance as a man who has invested himself in a cause, given his all, only to come out at the end as a suspect and a failure. Vanden Heuvel’s turn as the neurotic and scarred Gladys (shades of Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night ), like Talmadge and Roberts, reveals layers of psychological complexity, years of doubt and perseverance turned, in her case, into something like personal nihilism. And Roberts provides a jolt in more ways than one when he arrives: the subaltern come to confront his past, before leaving for a new future. One senses that the three actors are still finding the moments in and rhythms of the production: from my point of view, they are just inches away from providing Bay Area audiences with one of the most enthralling and intense shows of the year. This is a show that cannot be missed as theatre that matters, a production that bravely explores the human heart, on issues of race, prejudice, violence and oppression that matter now just as much as ever—if not more.