50 years on, Lanford Wilson's underbelly play is a stunning showcase for Chicago's next generation of ensemble actors.
Lanford Wilson’s first play, a roiling portrait of the junkies and prostitutes who orbit around a rundown Manhattan diner in the mid-1960s, has a history of causing a stir. In its debut in 1965, it was a building block of the Off Off Broadway movement, drawing standing-room crowds to New York’s Café La MaMa. A decade and a half later, it was a mile marker for the still-young Steppenwolf Theatre Company here in Chicago; when Steppenwolf’s production, directed by John Malkovich, was remounted in New York in 1984, it became another brick in the building of that company’s national reputation, and the growing idea of “the Chicago style” of theater.
Now this sprawling piece is back in Chicago, in Jonathan Berry’s vivid, engrossing new production for the Griffin Theatre Company. What New York magazine in 1985 called Steppenwolf’s “rock-and-roll acting” eventually became far too limiting an idea of Chicago theater’s many forms of truthfulness. But if you want a prime showcase for 30 or so of our city’s current generation of up-and-coming actors in the selfless ensemble mode, Balm in Gilead will soothe your soul.
Especially in the controlled chaos of its first act, Wilson’s piece is a symphony of desperation, with three, four, five separate conversations overlapping. In his new orchestrations, Berry cleverly doesn’t overmodulate them; when we’re meant to be hearing a cacophony and unsure where to focus, the director allows that to play out. When our attention needs to be focused, Berry accomplishes it via foregrounding, or with more direct directions: Rather than the occasional spotlight cues called for in Wilson’s script, Berry expands the direct-address role of hustler-addict Dopey (Morgan Maher) to literally point us to the pertinent bits.
Most often, as Wilson lays it out, that’s to home in on the doomed flirtation between Joe (Japhet Balaban), a baby-faced nascent drug pusher, and Darlene (Ashleigh LaThrop), the new arrival who wants to seem like she’s above prostitution even if she really isn’t.
The outcome of their relationship is as predictable as it is banal, but that seems part of the young Wilson’s intent—this pair’s brief fantasies of redeeming each other are but a drop in the bucket of the endless cycle of sadness centered on this sad café.
Wilson’s indulgences in the possibilities provided by even the most bare-bones theater—the direct address, the mutability of time, the immediately repeated scenes—hold up alongside the wealth of acting opportunity he offers up to a large cast, which in Griffin’s sharply cast staging features juicy work by the likes of Cyd Blakewell as a jaded prostitute, Andrew Swanson as a pitiably busted-up junkie and Maher as the unreliable quasi-narrator. Scenic designer Dan Stratton has a stroke of brilliance in keeping the Den Theatre's second-floor-mainstage windows, usually curtained off with heavy drapes, open to Milwaukee Avenue at the rear of the stage to let that dusky, impersonal view of our own cityscape backlight the diner.
Balaban makes for an appealingly doomed young protagonist, convincingly selling Joe’s combination of jittery anxiousness and mislaid optimism. LaThrop’s Darlene might initially come across too naive for a character who’s already been around the block at least a time or two. But in her 20-minute Act II recounting of her past near-marriage in Chicago—and the shakiness of her story’s most basic details about our city’s geography, among other things—LaThrop lets us see even the lies Darlene has been telling herself begin to crack and chap in ways no balm will heal.
Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. By Lanford Wilson. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.