By CHUCK GRAHAM
Have we become so isolated from one another, wrapped in our own materialism, that even our friends can’t reach us?
Playwright Terrence McNally thinks so, and offers a spiritual solution in “A Perfect Ganesh.”
Live Theatre Workshop, in turn, has delivered a touching production stunning in its simplicity. Directed by Terry Erbe with an interesting interpretation by Jeremy Thompson as the Indian god Ganesha, the play will have audience members searching their souls for that elusive map to happiness.
LTW’s presentation begins with a plain white stage where two large plain white blocks sit. Each is about 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2 feet high. In the course of the play, the blocks come to represent many locations, from a hotel balcony in Bombay to a boat on the Ganges River near Varanasi as bodies float by.
Musical interludes and sound effects add to the atmosphere as two grumbling, middle-aged women, insisting they are best friends, take a sight-seeing trip to India. Toni Press-Coffman plays Katherine, generally the more cheerful one. Carlisle Ellis is Margaret, forever finding fault with something or other.
Accompanying them is the ever-smiling Ganesha, sometimes called Ganesh, a mystical figure who personifies that song lyric, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
With such an upbeat message, Ganesha is a popular god in India. He makes no demands, insists on no ritual.
Yet as Katharine and Margaret discover, he can be a difficult god to get on your side. For one thing, Ganesha never takes sides. Discovering that fact is a major step for these two travelers.
Completing the cast is Christopher Johnson, playing all the people all tourists meet and depend on. The hotel concierge, the tour guide, the waiter – these are the ones who often shape a tourist’s impression of any native land. But where is the real spirit of a country, its true personality? For that, you must find Ganesha. At least if you are in India.
Included within the play is a short shadow play that explains how Ganesha came to have the body of a man and the head of an elephant. As in all productions of “A Perfect Ganesh,” the actor wears a stylized mask with a short, curling trunk and one broken tusk. How that tusk was broken is explained, too.
Being an actor with a hidden face creates enormous challenges to projecting emotion.
Thompson meets them by developing a jovial body language.
He bounces and glides, at times nearly floating about the stage as an ethereal presence the audience can see but the two women cannot.
Tucsonans familiar with Hindu culture will no doubt find even deeper significance to many of the lines. There are also healthy helpings of feminist politics and homophobia which, in a sense, date the play’s early 1990s origins. But even though these aren’t the hot button topics they used to be, this production’s open honesty keeps it from feeling dated.
Katherine and Margaret first meet Ganesha at the International Departures Terminal where their reservations have disappeared from the airline’s computer. Though they never see the pudgy little god, he gets them a pair of fine seats in first class to begin their trip. But by the time this unsuspecting duo reaches Bombay, one of their bags is missing.
Katherine is determined not to let a few bumps ruin a trip they have been anticipating for so long. Margaret is already complaining. As we discover, both women want more from this trip than just a bunch of slides and some amusing anecdotes to recall at cocktail parties. Their memories of the past are shaping their future.
As their trip continues to other cities, Margaret can’t escape her fear of strangers. She sees only the poverty. The lack of this and that. India is not a spiritual place. India is a broken place.
Katherine wants to soak up the color, absorb the sounds, embrace the people. But when she does, it nearly becomes a disaster.
Yet the play is just getting started. As the experiences of their trip become more complicated, we learn Margaret has good reasons to be perpetually angry.
And we discover that Katherine’s compulsive happiness is edging closer to hysteria.
Truly, Ganesha, who values happiness and balance, has his work cut out for him.
if you go
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “A Perfect Ganesh” by Terrence McNally.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, to Dec. 18.
Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
How much: $13-$15
Details: For reservations, call 327-4242.