Balm in Gilead
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
October 30, 2005
The 1972, Upper Broadway coffee shop of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead is about as different from the contemporary Starbucks as could be. Where today one might see iPods, hear piped in jazz, and drink a skinny latte with well-dressed consultants working on Wi-Fi, the early '70s coffee shop of Balm in Gilead is chock full of junkies, hookers, and small-time dealers, many of whom have trouble coming up with the 50 cent minimum for their table. The Barefoot Theatre Company’s current revival of Balm in Gilead is a relic of a long-gone New York City, pre-Giuliani, which had a character and desperation that contemporary New York City seems to have replaced with commercial charms and safe harbors.
Though the all-night hangout of the play, called Frank’s Cafe, is packed with characters, there does not seem to be a single person amongst them who is not in the food chain of the local drug and prostitution trade—they are all either predator or prey. Any of them, on their own, could make an establishment seem shady just by showing up, but with these larger-than-life street types in every seat, Frank’s begins to look like the Extras Holding Area for Scorcese’s Mean Streets. It is hard to imagine there was ever a New York City quite this vivid. The play is so firmly rooted in a particular time and place that it is difficult to get a handle on what it says to us now. The place we are looking into seems so distant that it is hard to be shocked or enlightened by it. But this production, mounted confidently and faithfully by Barefoot Theatre Company does make us enjoy our long, voyeuristic look.
One of the most obvious challenges of this play is that there are almost 30 characters on the stage at all times, who move in and out of focus throughout the loose narrative. Eric Nightengale, who worked with Steppenwolf more than 20 years ago on its famous revival, directs both a massive stage full of colorful characters and the audience’s attention skillfully. I was never unsure of where I should be looking, and on whom the action was focused. Credit for this is also owed to a group of actors truly working as an ensemble. The space they have to work in is small and crowded with furniture, but the actors not only keep their moves clear and motivated, they make the whole play feel like one, seamless move.
The production is at its best when the action is contained within itself; showing the audience a bygone era, alive and bustling, like a moving kaleidoscope. It is less so when the actors break the fourth wall. Being so far removed from the manner of these characters and with a place that seems aged and insular, it was a stretch to feel pulled in and “a part” of their world. I was far more interested to sit back and watch than to try to feel included. In particular was the choice to have some of the characters out in the audience interacting with us as a kind of pre-show. These characters are much less effective outside of their context, and as each would approach to flirt or ask for a cigarette, I found myself thinking, “Please start the play, please start the play, please start the play.”
The two central characters, Emily and Joe, are brought to life by Anna Chlumsky and Barefoot’s artistic director Francisco Solarzano. Emily is the naive outsider who believes she will be tough enough to make it in the neighborhood and Joe is a charming, small-time pusher who is in way over his head and in debt to the wrong people. Both of their characters have a rather clear path from the start of the play, and its a credit to both performers that they could stay grounded and compelling, even in the midst of some moments that all the outside eyes could see coming from early on.
Though some elements of this play have not aged well, it is exciting to get a full look at the first full-length play of a very influential playwright. It's valuable to have an opportunity to see where the heroin junkies of Balm in Gilead fit in the history of such bar plays as O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Williams’s Small Craft Warnings, and how Wilson’s desire to stage the members of society that many would ignore might influence the writers who would come later, such as Eric Bogosian and Stephen Adly Guirgis. Barefoot Theatre Company’s well-produced and solid revival gives audiences a chance to really experience this play, and is worth a look.