Sunday, January 22, 2012

God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz

By Joe Straw

My first wife died 17 years ago this month.  At that time, my life became a series of emotional ups and downs, mostly downs.  Grieving alone was necessary but I also needed help. It was too much for me to handle.  The Wellness Foundation in Santa Monica recommended a grieving group and it was from this group that I recovered enough to move on.
The Echo Theater Company presents God’s Ear written by Jenny Schwartz.  It is directed by Rory Kozoll and is playing through February 19, 2012 at the Zephyr Theatre.

Schwartz’s work is a wonderful word fest.  The main character speaks a subconscious stream of thought in the process of getting over her grief.  And although grieving differs for everyone, the words in this play examine the subconscious complexities of grieving.  

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “From your lips to God’s ear”.  But I suspect the title has something to do with that phrase. Jenny Schwartz’s play is remarkable in that the grieving takes over the lives of the tormented characters.  They speak without communicating; their words are a call to action not given.  Each character is looking for a way to get out of the emotional mess they are in, but they don’t know how or who to ask for help.   

In the opening of the play, Mel (Amanda Saunders) has the phone to her ear.  She is in a hospital room and behind her is the curtain to her sons’ room.   Her husband is on the other end of the line and he is traveling somewhere in America. Mel tells him that their young son got pulled under the water while swimming in the ocean and now he is behind the curtain hooked up to life support systems and not expected to survive.  The “nice doctors” have already suggested the removal of his organs.

Ted (Paul Caramagno) listens, casually, with little emotion or feeling.  The small phone is nestled against his ear, but oddly enough he is not reaching for information.  He takes what Mel offers in the way of doctor speak expressed in short staccato sounds bites, burst of information that would normally send anyone into a panic.  Still, Ted listens.  He shouts at her on one occasion.  The shout seems non-specific.  Their son’s situation is hopeless.

It is their time, their moment, to start the emotional nightmare of grieving. It will be a journey that will test the limits of their marriage.    

In a nice bit of action, Mel pulls the hospital room curtain and we are suddenly transformed to their bedroom at home.  The bed occupies the middle of the stage and as Mel slips into her bedroom attire, her lonely process of grieving begins.

Grieving is difficult and unique for each individual so it is not unusual to see these two struggle as they pursue their different paths of grief.  But their lives are now in chaotic mode. And Mel speaks to Ted in a strange cliché ridden assault of excessive verbiage that probably was cute when they first met.  But after their son’s death, this seems like an exercise in triteness.  Still, Ted plays along.  

But, all Ted can do to comfort her is offer her a pair of pink fuzzy bedroom slippers from one of his trips.  

And to make matters worse they have another child. Lainie, (Alana Dietze).  She is small child and repeatedly asks kid questions like “Why? Why? Why?”  Lainie does not understand the death of her brother or what her parents are going through.

It is difficult to see Rory Kozoll’s (the director) through line, point of view, or perspective. Characters appear without purpose or meaning.  The first scene propels the actors into the rest of the play.  Instead, the opening has two characters having a “casual conversation” when in fact it is a very traumatic situation.  This scene establishes a strong relationship and creates a conflict that remains with the character through the conclusion. If the opening isn’t spot on, the play has a hard time working.  

The staging is awkward at times and the relationships are not justified. For example Mel buries the toy soldiers in the back yard because they are a reminder.  So when G.I. Joe (Jeremy Shranko) unburies himself and appears as human flesh, Mel has little or no reaction. More should have been made of this scene and the relationships.  

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this play.  While there is a resolution to the grieving, the problem is in the getting to the resolution and in a manner that speaks the truth about grieving. All actions on stage must lead to this point.

I speak of moments as if they are obscure intangible things but they are events that, when worked to perfection, can be a beautiful thing.

Also, the relationship the parents have with their son must be visible and concrete. Even though he does not appear in the play he must always be in their thoughts.  This gives the characters a richer physical life if only one can imagine carrying a son who who has passed.
Maybe this was opening night jitters and moments didn’t quite carry us the way it should have.  And possibly these moments have been fixed.  If so, go out and have a good time.

Amanda Saunders give a poignant performance.  She is very stoic, strong, but has been left stranded, grieving, without seeking help.  She is hurting and hateful, her jagged words on the phone sting like serrated knives that are buried deep into the intended victim.  And her husband is the recipient of those thrusts.  Is she looking for help? Or is it her thoughts that carry her away on a journey she takes willingly without seeking the help she needs?

Paul Caramango as Ted has a slow start but manages to grow on you.  He wanders through airports and his life is stunned by the events of the death of his only son. He communicates with his wife mostly by phone. He also meets with people who are both real and imagined.  He interacts with these people only to take his mind off of his son and his grieving wife. His relationship with his daughter needs strengthening.

Tara Karsian, as the tooth fairy, is so subdued and as skeptical as a tooth fairy can be.  She even goes so far as to take out her tweezers and examine the tooth under a lupe to make sure it is authentic. She is left without a clear objective and a reason for being in this play. Still, with little wings, her appearance is delightful.

Alano Dietze as Lainie is cute.  One did not get a hint of an objective and did not understand what this character wanted.  She should, in effect, be some kind of catalyst to help her parents overcome this hardship by loving, supporting, and just being a kid who makes this family whole.  

Jeremy Shranko as a skirt wearing flight attendant appears out of nowhere brandishing a gun and ordering Ted to do things.  He is obviously a figment of Ted’s imagination but it’s unclear as to what he actually wanted or what Ted wanted from him.  And as G.I. Joe he also seems lost in his relationship with Mel and Lainie but seemed to have a stronger relationship with the tooth fairy. Go figure.

Andrea Grano, as Lenora, was very good as someone who gives Mel a little tender loving care albeit under the influence.  Natheless, she sees Ted as a man who needs help and she’s going to give it to him despite the fact he’s married, grieving, and stalking a guy wandering the airport.

Troy Blendell as Guy gives comic relief to this very somber play.  When the two meet in a bar he understands Ted may be having emotional problems and he wants to help the only way he knows how: “wife swapping” is his answer.  But that’s just the beer talking.  Or is it?   Blendell’s wonderful performance seems to say that he got it, he understands the character, and was perfect for the role.  

Jarrett Worley is the understudy for the flight attendant.

Nicely produced by Lauren Bass & Chris Fields.  The set design was by Melissa Ficociello.  The Costume Design by Jordan Bass and the Lighting Design was by Kristie Roldan.

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