Although audiences may have been unaware of it, the opening of Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh" at Arena Stage neatly coincided with the Indian festival celebrating the Hindu god, Ganesh. This comment isn't intended to chide American audiences. Before they set off on their Indian vacation, the two upper middle-class housewives who are the play's protagonists don't know much about Ganesh, either.
But it is Ganesh himself -- ebulliently played by Jeffrey V. Thompson, decked out in the god's requisite elephant head -- who serves as the women's unofficial tour guide. "The remover of obstacles," as he describes himself, Ganesh doesn't merely show them the sights. He shows them how to open up to each other and how to rediscover the serenity hidden in their hearts.
In the case of these Connecticut matrons, it is deeply hidden indeed. Neither that nor the physical trials of the journey, however, necessitate the play's three-hour length, which is due partly to a script that force-feeds us more than we need to know, and partly to Laurence Maslon's direction, which, particularly in the first-act airport scene, moves slower than a flight delay.
Each woman is running away from something at least as eagerly as she is anticipating this trip to India. Katharine, played with tenderness and grace by Tana Hicken, is the enthusiast of the pair, but her high spirits are largely an attempt to cover up the void left by the loss of her son, who was beaten to death by gay-bashers three months earlier. His death is even more painful because of the difficulty Katharine had accepting his homosexuality.
In contrast, Halo Wines' bossy Margaret appears to have her life under control. Wines not only has the officiousness down pat, but she also shows us the wound that has been festering beneath Margaret's brash exterior. A generation ago, her 4-year-old son ran out into traffic and was killed. It's a tragedy she has never talked about, not even to her best friend, Katharine.
In mystical India, Katharine and Margaret get a chance to speak to their dead sons -- both portrayed by Andrew Weems, who also plays numerous lesser roles. In a touching scene, the women dance with their sons -- in Margaret's case, with the man her 4-year-old would have grown up to be. Most important, the women reach out to each other on a level more profound than friendship and less arbitrary than family relationships.
Serious as this is, there's also a light, slightly magical tone to the production, stemming primarily from Thompson's whimsical depiction of Ganesh, who assumes guises ranging from a Japanese tourist to a hotel maid.
Like a mini-vacation, a play can take us to new places. This production achieves this, in part because of the moving portrayals of the two women (and despite the slow pace). The script itself, however, takes us beyond India. It takes us on a metaphysical journey to a place that is calm and accepting. The spirit of Ganesh stays with Margaret and Katharine after they return to the States, and it is indicative of the more effective aspects of this play that some of that spirit stays with the audience as well.
'Ganesh' moves, but at slow pace
"A Perfect Ganesh"
Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave. S.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays, and noon selected Wednesdays and Oct. 4; through Oct. 30