Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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It Is Written

August 23, 2010

Ryan Welsh and Melanie Lora
Photo: Ed Krieger/Boston Court 2010

The Oxford English Dictionary has proven to be a fertile source for narratives over the last decade. Particularly popular in the wake of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman were stories surrounding James Murray, one of the earliest editors of the OED. It’s also the setting for the quite good new play The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder by Moby Pomerance, now receiving its world premiere at The Boston Court Theater in Pasadena in a collaboration with Circle X Theater. Of course, while Murray’s Sisyphean task is the backdrop of the story, Pomerance has much bigger fish to fry, and in fact quite a lot of them, in his family drama. The Good Book is actually about the familiar stress and strains of families and particularly the roles of adult children reconciling their pasts while still caring and supporting their elderly parents. In Pomerance’s version James Murray is primarily assisted by a daughter, Jane, whose years of toil and bitter resentment of her absentee brother Paul comes to a head when the prodigal son, a cartographer, suddenly returns from Africa for a visit. And while both children must come to grips with their aging father, in some ways James Murray recedes into the background as a more static character bridging the gap between his two children. Fond memories are revisited, old wounds are reopened, and the Herculean labor of the OED carries on.

On the one hand, none of these family conflict story lines are particularly original. On the other, the setting is unique and Pomerance is wise to pack the show with enough dictionary intrigue to keep things interesting. If there is any problem, it may be that things are a little too packed with two servants, rotating employee/volunteers working on the dictionary, and sundry subplots to accompany it all. The Good Book is a busy play that sometimes seems to be missing a real overarching sense of direction. One may wonder if the dictionary will ever be completed, but this is never really the source of tension in the family drama that seems to percolate along slowly before coming to a somewhat predictable head. At its best, The Good Book manages to evoke the kind of excitement a Merchant/Ivory film might. Director John Langs elicits strong performances from everyone including a particularly good Melanie Lora as Jane and Ryan Welsh as Paul. Accents are largely stable and convincing throughout, and the play manages to evoke a Victorian air without being particularly Dickensian. And though some of the psychological concerns of the characters, including Jane’s rather easy acceptance of her brother’s implied homosexuality, may be a bit out of place for the time period of the play’s action, it’s still a fairly interesting exercise. The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder is worth seeing and runs through September 5 in Pasadena.

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