“A Perfect Ganesh” Friday, Spokane Civic Theatre’s Studio Theatre
Could “A Perfect Ganesh” have a more perfect production?
It’s hard to see how. This Terrence McNally play is so cleverly conceived, sensitively directed and well-cast that we can forget the sometimes maddening nature of the script and enjoy the sheer craft of the evening.
In fact, one actress, Ann Russell, turns in a performance that may easily turn out to be the best of the season. And beyond all of this, director Sara Edlin-Marlowe adds her own creative touch, one that contributes immensely to the mood and the theme of this play: authentic classical Indian dance.
It’s not exactly called for in the script - after all, despite the Indian setting, “A Perfect Ganesh” is more about the psychological problems of two Connecticut matrons than it is about the culture of India. Yet Edlin-Marlowe begins the play with a breathtakingly graceful Indian dance, performed the night I was there by Sudha Nandagopal (she alternates performances with Shyamali Roy Hauth).
Her sinuous hand movements, the hypnotic jangle of her ankle-bracelet bells, and her almost cobra-like head movements created a mood of reverence for the Indian culture that is sorely needed in this script. Even though McNally displays a respect for Indian culture, the play is really about two American tourists who are oblivious to a great deal of what they are seeing.
Those two tourists are Margaret Civil, played by Kimberly J. Roberts, and Katharine Brynne, played by Russell. Roberts does a remarkable job of showing Civil to be almost paralyzingly uptight - she does a slow burn whenever her traveling companion embarrasses her, which is often. She seethes silently, and then cruelly chastises Brynne for simply being her unfettered self. At the same time, Roberts shows her character to be truly depressive, with an almost Eeyore-like fatalism that we later learn stems from a horrifying, and secret, incident 20 years earlier.
With her hang-dog gloominess, it is easy for us to transfer our sympathies to Brynne, especially when brought so vividly to life by Russell. With an almost Hepburn-like self-assurance, she creates a free spirit who is so free that she often lets her mouth run on when it should stay shut. She calls Japanese “Japs” and has an aggravating habit of saying “Gracias” when she tries to thank an Indian. Yet Russell plays her with such vibrant charm, and such depth of feeling that we soon begin to identify with her. Russell’s best moments are her monologues, in which she exercises complete mastery of the stage. We can’t take our eyes off of her as she confesses her limitations and her regrets.
Ron Varela, in elephant mask, was a good choice to play Ganesha, the Hindu deity. Ganesha is everyone and everything, so McNally took that literally and has Ganesha “being” everything from a Japanese tourist to a lower-caste chambermaid. Varela’s mastery of voices serves him in good stead.
Kevan Gardner does an impressive job playing 18 different roles. He is especially strong as the acerbic Air India ticket agent, and, touchingly, as Brynne’s dead son.
Which brings us to the script itself. I found “A Perfect Ganesh” to be frustrating at times. These two women get tiresome, with their petty carping and their transparent and slightly-too-obvious psychological problems. It would have been nice if they had progressed just a little faster in their spiritual journeys. In the end, their epiphanies, such as they were, seemed rushed, unjustified and unsatisfying.
Also, I never got over the feeling that McNally wrote these characters as vehicles to preach about his high-minded themes: guilt, intolerance, emotional stuntedness, with a little bit of gay politics thrown in. These characters come alive because of two fine performances, not because of McNally’s script.
Yet maybe I do a disservice to McNally, usually one of the finest of playwrights. This play is complex enough that it might grow in depth on repeated viewing. Even if it doesn’t, the production itself is so good you may want to go back anyway.