Posted by: strugglesome | January 18, 2012

Grapes of Wrath: People’s Light And Theatre Company Presents Fallow

It was Agatha Christie who said  “A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no aw, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path”. Now, I’m fairly certain that this phrase was uttered at the end of one of her more troubling mysteries, though of course I could be dead wrong. Nevertheless, it speaks to the violence of a mother’s love, and the internal violence that could erupt if said child was no more. In the animal kingdom we see these mothers morn and fight for their endangered children, sometimes with the entire herd behind them. But though we humans are also animals, because of propriety and society, our grief often twists itself into different shapes. And Elizabeth Hayes, mother of a lost child and protagonist of Kenneth Lin’s Fallow, now playing at People’s Light and Theatre Company, is no exception.

When we meet Mrs. Hayes, fanning herself outside of a small airport in San Bernardino, California, she clearly isn’t a local. With her sensible flats and khakis and her awkward tourist t-shirt (courtesy of costume designer Jessica Ford), she sits alone on the cluttered and clumsy stage (set design by Wilson Chin), a lone human in a sea of metal siding. Lone save one, that is, a friendly cab driver of clear Mexican origins. Happy (Robert Montano) sweetly offers Elizabeth a coke, little knowing that he’s going to be giving her quite a bit more before she is done with him. You see, Elizabeth’s son was brutally murdered, and she’s come to find the only thing she still wants out of life. Closure.  And what does that have to do with Happy, you might ask? Far more than one might think, as it turns out.

Elizabeth hires Happy as her driver, to take her to San Bernardo Prison and Hancock detention center in an effort to confront the three people (all males) who beat her son to death. But Aaron, her ill-fated offspring, is no silent presence in this play. Played by George Olesky, and related entirely in a series of letters Aaron wrote but never sent to his mother, complete with flashbacks, we get a window into the life and soul of this troubled but spirited young man, and in theory, we fall in love with Elizabeth’s “beamish boy” as he discovers himself, and this country, among hives of bees and communities of migrant, mostly illegal, mostly Mexican farm workers. From each state and each new harvest Aaron chronicles his life and his journey of discovery, amazed at how much physical labor goes into each bite of fruit we eat. It should be beautiful and absorbing. It is my belief that it’s written to be beautiful and absorbing. But instead it’s at best irritating and at worst painful, and the blame for that can lie directly onto Olesky’s shoulders. Lock-jawed and stiff, Olesky is like a living example of everything bad male actors do. His hands flail with expression, his forehead furrows with painful concentration, he raises his voice and “emotes” for all he’s worth. He is clearly working hard. And it’s really not working.

And it’s a shame, because the central story is actually a beautiful one. A mother in the throes of grief, desperate to find some trace of her child still left in the world, finds a connection, tenuous, awkward and tense, but real, with the last friend had. He’s an illegal immigrant, a taxi-driver, a father of two. She’s a congressman’s daughter, a doctor’s wife, an Ivy-leaguer’s mother. But they share something no one else in the world does, and it bonds them in a rare and beautiful way. It’s messy, but life is messy, and the langauge Lin uses to tell his story is both lyric and bold, colloquial and special.  The playwright takes on quite a bit with this narrative, seeking to weave the threads of family, anti-Mexican sentiment, the politics of food and farming, loss and the culture of bees , all into one coherent whole. He uses flashbacks and monologues, two devices that don’t necessarily work as well as one might hope in guiding the narrative and enriching the story, despite the talents of Stepen Novelli, Laura Giknis and a lovely Joseph Michael O’Brien; each one brings life and color to their brief moments onstage.  And while each aspect of this story may not get the attention it deserves, the center of the story is a beautiful and moving one.

Moreover, Scallon and Montano are excellent with each other. Scallon, brittle, wry and deeply fundamentally damaged, wears her pain on her sleeve and in her expressive eyes, while Montano, charming and wise, but possessed of his own rage and pain, matches and compliments her. Together they carve true intimacy and depth out of this story, so marred with an impotent Aaron and a cluttered and inelegant set.  Chin’s set is distracting and limiting, shortening the playing space into a third of what it could be and scattering the walls with neon signs which do little to add more than garish icing to the metal walls. The actors are crowded by the world around them, unable to move freely, and though the initial reveal of a meadow is nice, it soon becomes tiresome when you realize how much space it eats up. And it’s a shame, because otherwise the design is quite nicely done. Joshua Shuman’s lighting is perfectly effective while Toby Algya’s sound is neat and nicely done. Ford’s costumes are nicely evocative without being obvious, and, set aside, everything else is nicely toned and well wrought. It’s just a shame that the world in which it lives is so overwhelming. Maybe it’s just that director Jackson Gay’s vision of this world isn’t entirely clear. Paired down and spare, this could be a world of infinite locations and spaces. As it is, it’s filled with unnecessary things that only get used once and haunt the space like a bad horror film.

But it’s worth seeing the show just to see Scallon and Montano travel through their respective, unbearably powerful arcs. Watching them together, the rest of the production just falls away, and we are left with two wounded people working to comfort each other through a dark and painful journey. We aren’t bees, we aren’t divided into workers and queens. Instead we are all equal, really, once we look past the superficial differences like country of origin. We all feel the sharp pain of losing love, the lack of it in our lives once it’s been obliterated. And we can all comfort each other, when it comes down to it. We just have to want to see past the obvious and to the heart of the matter.

People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of Fallow will be running from now until the 5th of February. Tickets are available here.

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