EVER SINCE HOMEBODY, KABUL, people have been calling playwright Tony Kushner “prescient.” I’m not so sure, and neither is Kushner. Earlier this year, he qualified some predictions to the Weekly with the caveat that he is not prescient, and then proved his point by insisting that voters would soon stand behind gay marriage and that George W. Bush would lose the election. Kushner’s paradox as a visionary dramatist lies in his infatuation with the empirical details of his prodigious research, which is why so many of his brilliant plays turn yellow and wrinkle in the sun like newsprint. Prophets and fortunetellers speak more through allegories than facts — which is a kind of hedge in case they’re wrong.
Playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves) is truly prescient and receives almost no credit for being so. Whether you suffered through or celebrated the election of Mr. Bush, Guare was writing about it back in 1982, in the abstract, via 1895 Nantucket in a play called Lydie Breeze, now playing at Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater. Though he, like Kushner, invests heavily in the poetical, emotional interplay among his characters, the closest Lydie Breeze comes to time-pegged factoids is a reference or two to the Civil War.
In Lydie Breeze, current events breathe new life into old symbols. If you believe the Civil War is ancient history, you didn’t follow last week’s election and its Jim Crow shenanigans in the South. America’s prevailing internal conflict is still between the religious farmlands and the secular cities, as it was 150 years ago. If you believe there’s no more slavery in America, hire a maid from the Chinese mafia, then ask her how she got here. Or try flipping burgers at minimum wage, sans overtime or medical insurance. Try to support yourself — never mind your family — on a job like that, like the majority of new jobs in our economic “recovery.” All of this is in Lydie Breeze, but without a single reference to the living wage, immigration policy, health care or who’s in Congress. Guare doesn’t need such topicality because his allegorical emblems are so perfect.
Like so many of Kushner’s plays, Lydie Breeze is about the left in crisis, and never has that crisis been more immediate or dire. The back story concerns four characters who, after the detritus of the Civil War, tried to form a more perfect union — a Whitmanesque commune where they might live out utopian ideals. Something awful happened, like poison. They slept with each other, contracted syphilis, turned jealous, spiteful, and the sins of the fathers were visited upon the children. Guare may have intended the Civil War to stand in for the war in Vietnam, and the syphilis to represent AIDS. But a new era invests them with new meanings. The Civil War is back, now between the forces of blue and red, and the national disease is a cultural divide. Guare’s play is about how its characters pull themselves from the mire and proceed — a question facing anyone who holds, or held, humanistic ideals in an increasingly zealous society.
The drama unfolds after the utopians’ fall — also, after a storm that left only one house standing in Nantucket — and recounts events that brought down the idealists. It’s a study in corruption and a mystery unveiled through the telling of stories. Guare doesn’t create characters as textured as Eugene O’Neill’s, but he too is of Irish stock and tries with some success to create action from the artistry and suspense of storytelling. When the suspense plays, it becomes action; when it doesn’t, it slips into mere chatter about the past.
The opening story is told by a servant (Jessica Ires Morris) to a child, Lydie Hickman (Jane Longenecker), who wears a bandage over one eye from a recent accident. Whether or not the new generation can actually see anything is an open question. The servant’s saga is an explicit description of how Lydie Breeze — one of the utopians and the girl’s mother — hanged herself. The sheer grotesquerie of it piques interest. Soon, we meet Breeze’s widower, Joshua Hickman (John Ross Clark), a Civil War veteran and ex-utopian who insists on curing his daughter’s eye with drops — if she’s really his daughter, which is another open question. The child’s screaming is mere petulance, he presumes, until he realizes that he’s accidentally placing mentholated nose drops in her eye.
Clark’s performance is a highlight. He has the stony build of a potato farmer, revealing a lifetime of Joshua’s humiliations, tragedies and squandered hopes with stoic brusqueness. Joshua spent time in prison for murdering his best friend, utopian Dan Brady. In another terrific story, we come to learn how that murder occurred — the petty, erroneous stupidity that motivated it. Meanwhile, Joshua’s other daughter, Augusta (Tisha Terrasini), blows in from Washington, D.C., a secretary and mistress to wealthy, philandering Senator Amos Mason — the fourth of the original quartet of utopians. (Mason never appears in this version of the play.) Finally, the murdered Dan Brady’s long lost son, Jeremiah (lanky David J. Wright with flowing locks), arrives seeking vengeance, or forgiveness, or both. He’s quite confused, actually — an actor who’s been playing the Monster in a long-running London stage production of Frankenstein. The Monster is a star. And so the play keeps reaching into a squalid past to find a way of enduring a troubling future.
“How do I stop — being afraid?” Lydie asks her father near play’s end.
“You make yourself smart,” he answers, as though to future generations of progressives. “And you dream. You don’t let it destroy you.”
Dietrich Smith’s staging mostly traverses the difficult crosscurrents of Guare’s melodrama, poignancy and humor. Wright’s Jeremiah arrives with the lovingly detailed, swaggering neuroticism of an actor returning home from abroad, while his dialect is a perfect blend of London and Boston. Terrasini’s vivacious Augusta settles nicely into a Nantucket brogue, though in Act 1 you’d think she’d come in from Georgia rather than D.C. While cameos by James Brandon and Jonathan Winn as a messenger and suitor are truly gripping, Smith compromises the credence of a late plot turn by amping up their cartoonishness. These are extremely delicate, wobbly tones to keep in pitch, and for the most part, Smith sustains a gripping harmony of majesty and sardonic wit.
Much of the beauty is supported by Laura Mroczkowski’s scenic design — a series of suspended panels containing painted swaths of ocean and foam. Aside from stock birdsong and crashing waves, David B. Marling’s sound design includes rich orchestral motifs separated by thundering, lugubrious chords. The solemnity of it helps keeps Guare’s rim-shot jokes within the play’s gilded 19th-century frame. The portrait it contains reveals a friction between noble ideals and sordid actions. In this friction lies the essence of American history, an eternal reconciliation being played out by everyone who lives here.
LYDIE BREEZE | By JOHN GUARE | Presented by the OPEN FIST THEATER COMPANY, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through December 4 | (323) 882-6912