'Map of the Heart': heavy-handed havoc, unhappily

November 26, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Fells Point Corner Theatre has accomplished somewhat of a coup in staging the American premiere of British playwright William Nicholson's "Map of the Heart."

It's a play that raises just the sort of meaningful social and political issues that this community theater often tries to address. But in this case, even the cast's sensitive performances cannot disguise a script so heavy-handed, it frequently seems to be more of a debate than a drama.

The central issue harks back to Genesis: "Am I my brother's keeper?" This, in turn, prompts the related query: Am I responsible for someone else's happiness? (For me, the havoc wrought by the search for happiness in this play also prompted a third question: Just how important is happiness anyway? But the playwright doesn't go into that one.)

What complicates matters in "Map of the Heart" is that the protagonist's desire for happiness is not the typical yuppie variety. Albie, a medical doctor, doesn't long for status and possessions; he longs to help others, specifically, the sick, starving masses in the war-torn Sudan.

Under these circumstances, it's difficult to write Albie off as merely a selfish man in the throes of a midlife crisis. But not only is he leaving his wife and daughter to pursue his noble mission, he's having an affair with the female doctor who runs the field hospital.

In cynical terms, "Map of the Heart" seems to suggest that even the most noble ends are often the result of self-serving means. Or, regarded a little less judgmentally, perhaps the playwright is simply asking us to take a closer look at our motives -- and in a broader sense, at ourselves.

That's certainly the journey taken by Albie, who, as portrayed by Ray Barcia, initially resembles a lost puppy. He only begins to find his way after he's kidnapped by Sudanese terrorists; but by then he's nearly a broken man.

For his wife, insightfully played by Lynne R. Sigler, the quest for self-discovery starts when her husband is taken hostage. However, a deeper understanding grows out of her confrontation with Albie's lover, given an intense portrayal by Trisha Blackburn. In fact, the production's most charged scene is the one in which lover and wife first meet.

Director Robert Clingan keeps the personal relationships taut. But some of his stagier effects -- positioning wife, or lover, or hostage on pedestals at the far corners of the stage, for example -- have the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the already sanctimonious nature of the script.

"Map of the Heart" also includes several characters who seem to exist largely as foils for the central trio. A British government agent, slickly portrayed by Steve Oldham, is the most efficient, practical, self-assured character on stage; not only does he have himself figured out, he has everyone else figured out, too. In contrast, as Albie's brother-in-law, Bruce Godfrey plays a totally dependent leech recovering from a nervous breakdown. The most mysterious figure is a reclusive proponent of Zen played Paul Ellis. Though this character seems almost extraneous, the playwright may have included him to suggest that self-knowledge is not enough if it's used as a way to withdraw from society.

Following the performance I attended, the director and cast held discussion with the audience, and the points raised left no question that "Map of the Heart" provides plenty of food for thought. At the same time, it seemed telling that this unscripted give-and-take often felt livelier than Nicholson's ponderous prose.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Map of the Heart."

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Dec. 20.

Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

Tickets: $9.

Call: (410) 276-7837.

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