Insignificant, Magnificent Lives

LTW eschews lighter fare for Terrence McNally's powerful 'A Perfect Ganesh'

"I am in your kiss," purrs the undulating man with the head of an elephant. "I am in your cancer. I am in the smallest insect that crawls across your picnic blanket towards the potato salad. I am in your hand that squashes it. I am everywhere."

Meanwhile, two well-off American women nervously, reluctantly clutch at each other through a patch of turbulence during their flight to India. Says one, "I can bear anything as long as I know it's going to end."

The turbulence in these women's lives, however, is longstanding and is unlikely to end soon. Margaret and Katharine are off to India to see the sights, pick up a few souvenirs and perhaps somehow be healed by the country's beauty and poverty and squalor and spirituality.

All the while, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha looks on benevolently, removing a few obstacles, sighing in sympathy, but never actively imposing peace on what he calls these two "little, insignificant, magnificent lives."

Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh counts to some degree as a comedy, but it is at times an almost unbearably sad one. Knowing that, some theatergoers have already decided to bypass Live Theatre Workshop's current show, according to patrons I overheard at a performance last weekend. This is a pity, for the company has mounted a moving production that offers relief from the lighter fare that has kept the doors open in these escapist post-Sept. 11 years.

Arizona Theatre Company presented A Perfect Ganesh not quite 10 years ago; perhaps inaccurately, I remember that production emphasizing the comic fallibility of bossy, bitchy Margaret and flighty Katharine. In contrast, the Live Theatre Workshop production, directed by Terry Erbe, takes the women more seriously, without glossing over their silliness and flaws.

This gentle but clear-eyed treatment of the characters may stem from the facts that Erbe has been closely associated with the actresses--Carlisle Ellis and Toni Press-Coffman--in past productions, and the women are friends in civilian life. Most notably, Erbe and Ellis both acted in Press-Coffman's fine play That Slut! two seasons ago. People who collaborate closely but at rather wide intervals are perhaps likely to approach each project with special care, and that care brings a welcome depth of character to A Perfect Ganesh.

McNally does the actresses few favors in his early scenes, though. Character clichés abound as the women arrive for their flight; you can see why Margaret rolls her eyes at the apparently free-spirited Katharine's exclamations of "O, for a muse of fire!" The Henry V line is already annoying the second time she spouts it. For her part, Margaret is an officious stickler for proper form, and you can tell from the beginning that the traveling companions will become increasingly frazzled, exasperated and bitter as their difficult journey progresses.

Yet Ellis plays Margaret with a guarded gruffness, not an all-purpose bitchiness, and very soon, and very quietly, she begins to reveal Margaret's loneliness and melancholy. Press-Coffman, meanwhile, avoids depicting Katharine as a frivolous airhead. During the flight, she repeats the mantras of a self-help tape with sorrowful desperation, and soon we learn that she is still grieving for her son, murdered in a gay-bashing incident, and mourning that she did not love her son until it was too late.

Margaret has tragedies of her own, more deftly concealed than Katharine's, and on their trip, the women meet other troubled characters. The play turns into a kitchen sink of sorrows--dead sons, cancer, lepers, AIDS victims, auto accidents, guilt, bigotry, corpses in the Ganges. The script threatens to become ridiculous, with drama-queen McNally indulging in what borders on melodramatic excess and ending the first act in a moment of contrived panic that's completely forgotten after intermission. Yet McNally saves himself with his good heart and ultimately unsentimental view of his characters.

All the while, Ganesha watches over the women and becomes minor figures in their story: a guide, a hotel maid, a boatman, a giggling child. This god of love and acceptance is, in effect, the spirit of India. Jeremy Thompson may lack the fat and extra arms Ganesha requires, but he plays the god with gentle compassion and, in his measured introduction, a faint creepiness.

Christopher Johnson plays various male characters with valiant steadiness. I've never seen the Air India employee done well, and Johnson is the latest in a long line of actors who can't quite make him work; McNally does him in with an unsure tone. But Johnson is excellent and perfectly on the mark as the more serious characters, including a young doctor dying of AIDS and an apparition of Katharine's son who recounts his violent death with chilling evenness.

Erbe's functional all-white set serves its purpose, but the uncredited lighting design is jerky and sometimes poorly aimed. The sound design by Erbe and Michael Martinez initially is highly involved by LTW standards, but falls by the wayside in the second act.

So it's not a perfect production, but the characters never reach a perfect sense of serenity, either. For all the fantastic elements of A Perfect Ganesh, Terrence McNally remains anchored in the real world.

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