'God's Ear' weighs heavily on the emotions

theater review

April 09, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Words seem to drift to the ground and carpet the stage of God's Ear like the ashes that are the fallout of a devastating fire. Taken individually, the banalities and cliches are gray, weightless, inconsequential. But gradually they accumulate into a mass that simultaneously obliterates all the objects in the surrounding landscape and reminds us of their existence.

If audiences leave the Rep Stage production feeling drained, exhausted and numbed, it's because playwright Jenny Schwartz re-creates the grieving process with an almost cruel fidelity.

Mel and Ted don't just stop communicating with each other after their young son drowns - they lose the ability to be aware of their own feelings. Their old friend language suddenly seems puny, unable to approximate even a fraction of the emotions that overwhelm them. And the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Lanie, suffers a double blow: First, she loses her older brother and is then emotionally abandoned by her parents.

God's Ear and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, which was staged this season at the nearby Olney Theatre Center, are about families mourning the death of a child. Both productions starred Paul Morella as the heartbroken father. (The actor must be a glutton for punishment.)

But the plays' tones couldn't be more different. Rabbit Hole is heartfelt, wrenching and realistic. God's Ear is highly stylized and has roots in theater of the absurd.

Schwartz's dialogue is cliched and intentionally nonsensical. Certain passages are repeated two and three times. The characters go through long stretches in which they don't interact but primarily deliver monologues. And the show's 100 intermissionless minutes place heavy demands on audience members. We have to concentrate hard and listen carefully because, like Mel and Ted, we can't rely on ordinary signs to guide us.

Plot? There really isn't any. Characters? What are we to make of the Tooth Fairy, G.I. Joe and a gun-wielding, transvestite flight attendant? Dialogue and songs? There are a few of the latter, which tend to be on the order of an airline-safety lecture set to music.

Luckily, director Kasi Campbell assembled a cast adept at portraying the emotional truth beneath the surface superficiality. Morella and Julie-Ann Elliott make it clear that Ted and Mel love each other, even as the former seeks to escape his pain through extramarital affairs, and the latter through mindless chatter.

Even in a fuchsia fright wig and ragged blue wings, Barbara Rappaport exudes kindliness and a tattered dignity as the Tooth Fairy, a woman with an important job to do. Gia Mora is a volatile mix of neediness and sensuality as Ted's girlfriend, Lenora.

I was put off by the casting of an adult to portray Lanie, though I'll admit that few child actors could handle the demands required of this part. Lauren Williams, who appears to be in her 20s, is skilled and appealing, and I could accept her portraying, say, a preteen. But a 6-year-old? That strains credibility.

Daniel Ettinger's set is a visual metaphor for the characters' feelings. Scenes of falling snow and family photos are projected on a blank wall above and behind the actors. But the "wall" conceals several hidden compartments. Mel opens one - it seems to be the refrigerator - and out pops the Tooth Fairy.

Sometimes help comes from unexpected places.

if you go

God's Ear runs through April 26 at Rep Stage on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12-$30. Call 410-772-4900 or go to www.repstage.org.

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