A successful theatre production is nothing without its characters.
Balm in Gilead, directed by Stephanie Shroyer, just finished its weekend run at McClintock Theatre. Written by esteemed playwright Lanford Wilson, it takes place in all-night coffee shop and the street corner outside in Manhattan, 1966, which is frequented by rough men and women, prostitutes, pimps, junkies and dealers.
There isn’t much of a plot, but the story loosely focuses on Darlene, a naïve, wide-eyed and talkative prostitute from Chicago, double casted by Gabrielle Walsh and Betsy Newman, and Joe (Kevin Graber) a drug dealer who believes he is on the brink of a big break. The two of them are drawn together and manage to find a balm for their desperation and loneliness in a relationship with each other.
Balm in Gilead was truly a living and breathing piece. Long before the play officially started, the cast members were already on the set and embodying their characters.
Most of time, the stage was incredibly loud. There was a din of overlapping dialogue, arguments, brawls and occasional singing that seemed chaotic at times, but succeeded in engaging the audience. The play never got boring; there was always something interesting to watch. Also, partway through the show, the cast rotated the café, giving the audience a whole new angle on the same set, a simple, yet refreshing change.
Because the plot didn’t have a conventional structure, it didn’t have the typical tension, rising action, climax and resolution that the audience would expect. Audience members weren’t sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for twists and turns. It became clear that the same thing happens day in and day out at the café. The arguments, bums wandering in only to be thrown out, prostitutes and junkies all sum up to business as usual.
The plot, which gets lost under the rich chaos of the characters, is pretty predictable and uninteresting. It serves to give the play a vague sense of direction and purpose, to ground its slice-of-life episodic nature, but Balm in Gilead isn’t really about plot. Watching the crazy junkie talk to himself, prostitutes apply makeup and trying to pick up customers, the lesbian couple cuddling and talking affectionately in the booth, bums shivering outside and people brawling, arguing and sharing brief, intimate moments is the true story of Balm in Gilead.
The focus is on the characters, which is why the ensemble cast of 29 works so well. However, the two so-called leads fall a little short. Neither Darlene nor Joe are particularly captivating, and even though the story focuses a little more on them than the rest of the ensemble, they get a little lost in the myriad.
Balm in Gilead is an intriguing piece. Each character feels tremendously real, with his/her own quirks, thoughts, needs, desires and fears. But because there are so many characters, there isn’t much depth to them aside from Darlene, and none of them are fully fleshed out or explored. The audience gets whatever the characters say and do in their own little subplots, which is enough to make them real, but not enough to let the audience truly know them.
Balm in Gilead is a fascinating piece that tells a loud, collective tale of the loneliness and desperation of the vagrants who frequent the café, punctuated by only a couple of quiet moments. While the plot is unconventional and there seem to be too many characters involved, those characters feel incredibly real and keep the audience interested until the pessimistic, yet realistic ending.