Produced by – African Continuum Theater
By: Debbie Minter Jackson
The breakup of a marriage is always hard to watch. The nastier the better only works to sell tabloids sporting celebrities shot in unflattering, compromised positions accompanied by exposes and come-uppance storylines. There is no vicarious thrill while catching the death rattle of the sad couple in Lanford Wilson’s, Gingham Dog, the season opener at the African Continuum Theater, and therein lies the crux of the problem with the script. At least the tabloids are enticing, appealing in their own sick way, and stir up enough interest to secure a purchase and a surreptitious peek among the pages. The sad leavings of Wilson’s couple offer nothing of the kind, nor do the characters go kindly and gently onto the next stages of their lives. No, they are stuck in a thrashing battle of wills divvying up the pitiful remains of their three-year marriage, and we are hapless witnesses to the unpleasant results.
Much is made of the fact that this is an integrated couple, reeling from the social upheavals of 1960’s. What Wilson is presumably trying to portray is a couple who cast aside the howls of protest from family members and society at large, and clung to each other for dear life and love. The script provides fleeting hints of cool and distant family relationships-it’s quite telling that Gloria hasn’t even seen her mother in seven years. Looking back in fondness to their early union, Vincent recalls lovingly how Gloria symbolized strength and freedom. They cherished each other’s life views and though you couldn’t tell it at the end, at one point must have had explosive sexual energy. The script conjures up only fleeting hints and inklings of their idealistic beginnings, and that, ultimately, is its undoing, because without enough to appreciate what was, it’s hard to care about its demise as pieces of their shattered lives gets packed into moving crates. Vincent doesn’t even seem to care what gets tossed boxed and at one point lounges on the couch while Gloria attacks her tasks with single-minded intensity.
Both Gloria and Vincent have been indelibly marked by the struggle with scathing and devastating consequences, particularly Gloria who is the catalyst in the piece. She can no longer tolerate Vincent’s “sell-out” job as architect designing inadequate housing for the masses on his 9-to-5. To Gloria, he embodies the oppression of her people and she lashes out with harsh judgments and scalding comments. Gone is the freedom espousing bearded idealist she fell in love with and she lights into him with a vengeance of an idealist scorned, which opens the floodgates to some of the most vitriolic, blasting, name-calling passages I have heard in years. How Wilson got away with this in 1969 is beyond me. In fact, it’s here that he seems to be purging every racial sentiment and stereotype that he’s heard just to get it out of his system, getting out in the open what’s only been whispered around the dinner tables and under white robes about blacks, colored, Jews-you name it, every reflection of racial stereotyping, social ineptness, fearful contrivance, ignorant bigotry, it’s all stirred up in this cauldron of hate, even including reference to the pot calling the kettle. But why? What does it serve to spew out all this toxic racial slurring if it doesn’t move the storyline or clarify a character? Or as we say now, Why go there? It’s not really clear. And here is yet another issue I have with the script that the characters spout out these contrived passages for polemic bombastic effect rather than honest dialoguing. In the Molotov cocktailed era of the 1960’s, this couple presumably defied the Burn Baby Burn mentality and held onto each other for salvation and hellified passion only to melt in a racial caldron of their own making in three years? It just doesn’t add up. Like witnesses to a train wreck we watch as their once fiery hot passion morphs into a seething mutual hatred and disgust while they throw out ferociously nasty barbs at each other. Gloria’s passage where she starts off sweetly fantasizing the possibility of having their baby slowly turns into a devastating image of Medea sized proportions, amazingly performed, by the way, and quite a testament to Deidra LaWan Starnes’ spellbinding capabilities. The second act is presumably gentler, the stage is bare of all their stuff, empty, a blank slate, presumably a metaphor to reflect their ending or possibly a clearing for a new beginning perhaps? Only for the simple hearted. It seemed totally unlikely to me that anything could survive the torpedoes hurled just hours before. Besides, Wilson adds another disturbing twist, Gloria’s need to seek out comfort in a one-night stand. Yes, he went there, too.
Apparently, “The Gingham Dog” hit Broadway in 1969 for only five performances and has only scarcely surfaced since, probably because it’s a tough sell. Still, despite all my seething about the script, this is an important piece and a testament to the African Continuum Theater (no longer using the old Act-Co title) to bring it to light with excellent production values, under the steady hand of director, Jeremy Skidmore who gets to the heart of the play. Deidra LaWan Starnes proves yet again, to be one of the finest actors in the Washington metro region, and she alone is worth the trip to the steadily developing H Street corridor breathing life into her strained, wounded Gloria. Casie Platt delivers a fine turn as the sugar-coated, clueless sister Barbara with the vicious, tough as nails interior. And what’s not to love about the always pleasing Rick Hammerly who, bless him, spritzes each of his scenes with refreshingly cool drops humanity and humor, sorely needed in the parched earth of the script. Even the music design by David Lamont Wilson reflects the careful rendering of eclectic music styles symbolizing the cultural blending of the characters. Only the usually top-notch Jason Stiles seems to still be finding his footing in his difficult role, and might just need some time to recoup from his marvelous turn in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to the dark terrain of Vincent.
And no, I wouldn’t have known where the title comes from without research; as far as I could tell, there were no references to gingham or dogs in the piece, unless they got swallowed up in the bellicose ravings. And, I’m definitely not going back to find out. Without advantages of the Internet in 1969 (how did we survive?!), anyone unfamiliar with the odd little poem of the same name about the cat and pup who ate each other up hopefully got help from the program. Heaven knows we can use all the help we can get.
The Gingham Dog, by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Oct. 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit http://www.africancontinuumtheatre.com/ .