Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Awake and Sing

April 06, 2010

Carson Elrod and Heidi Schreck
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

One of the unique features of American liberals is how much they seem to enjoy, or at least feel the need to experience, the skewering of their own perspectives in the theater. Typically, this takes the form of a comedy where cartoonish liberal hypocrisy is milked for laughs as in Bruce Norris’ recent The Pain and the Itch. But this guilt can be accomplished in drama as well, as evidenced in Lisa Kron’s The Wake, her latest play that is now onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. The story concerns a loose nit family of young New Yorkers on the Lower East Side and follows them through the trials and tribulations they face over the course of the Bush administration from the contested election of 2000 through 2007. During that time, Ellen, a particularly politically engaged writer, faces a series of increasing personal challenges mirrored in the eras political changes that roil her sensibilities. Ellen has a live-in boyfriend, Danny, who stands by as she makes a decision about whether or not to leave their relationship and friends in New York to take up with a woman she has started an affair with in Boston. Meanwhile there are a number of subplots concerning Ellen’s friends including an older international relief worker who has returned to the U.S. to care for a troubled niece. Ellen follows the course set out by her own belief system at virtually any cost. And even when she gets her way openly maintaining both her relationships with two different lovers she fails to recognize the damage she is leaving in her own wake. (And thus the title of the play.) Soon, though, the emotional traumas inherent in her decisions come back to haunt her. Ellen talks about having an intellectual blind spot; the notion is that living strictly within the confines of one’s moral system can result in an inability to recognize bad choices. Ellen’s own life is paralleled by a similar pattern on the other side of the political spectrum in the events that would shape the first decade of the 21st century under the Bush administration.

Kron’s project is an ambitious one, and the point is well taken – that life is always more complicated than simply holding firmly to a set of moral or political principles. But despite this rather sophisticated idea, the play is far from ideal. Kron lets her characters ramble a bit much at times and great stretches of the two hours and 45 minutes is filled with the kind of philosophical relationship conversations that only people in plays have. Everyone's got a lot to say about their feelings, but strangely enough no one seems to act on them in the destructive or impulsive ways that people in the real world often do. Plus there is so much else going on. The subplots in The Wake are so thick that it sometimes feels that not enough time is spent making any of the central relationships between characters believable. The acting was quite good overall. Special mention needs to go to Heidi Schreck who played Ellen. After a lengthy performance in which she is in virtually every scene with lots of dialog, Ms. Schreck’s closing monologue in Sunday’s matinee was interrupted by the recent earthquake felt here in Southern California. After clearing the stage and house for safety reasons, the audience returned as the somewhat shaken Ms. Schreck pulled herself together to get back into character and finish the play. Perseverance works and it endeared her to everyone in attendance. Here's hoping next time around she's in something a little more substantial. Performances continue in Culver City through April 18.


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