A Taj of Class

Delicate rectangles of light dapple a translucent scrim that masks the proscenium at Herberger Theater's Center Stage. The tinkle of tiny cymbals begins to twang; our eyes penetrate the veil to behold a jewel-encrusted creature enthroned. With tawny skin spangled with golden dust, an ample human body is crowned with the head of an elephant. This is Ganesha, the Indian deity who lends his/her name to Terrence McNally's eloquent meditation on death.

From The Lisbon Traviata through Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, to the substantial theatrical feasts of Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Love! Valour! Compassion!; and Master Class, Terrence McNally has arguably become the most entertainingly profound playwright of our time. With the latter two plays, McNally has monopolized Broadway as the only writer capable of sustaining a successful run with that most endangered of species, the serious American play.

Often overlooked among this prolific outpouring of dramatic treasures is the jewel of his canon, the majestic and mysterious A Perfect Ganesh, which had a modest run of 124 performances off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993, starring Zoe Caldwell and Frances Sternhagen. I missed the original New York run, but having read the script, I eagerly anticipated Arizona Theatre Company's production of McNally's masterpiece. I was not disappointed. McNally has a very poor sense of economy, with the result being that most of his plays are too long. At two hours and 45 minutes, Ganesh is no exception. But the play is so consistently entertaining that we can easily forgive its length.

Ganesha opens the play dancing within the austere white confines of Ralph Funicello's postmodern set: a series of closet doors that slide or rise to reveal a panoply of settings which represent all the arduous details of a journey to India.

The travelers are two Connecticut dowagers who leave their respective husbands behind to undertake a precarious spiritual passage to the Indian subcontinent, seeking respite from the secret angst to which their lives as wives and mothers have brought them.

The women are a study in contrasts. The irrepressible Katharine "Kitty" Brynne (played with charm by Penelope Windust) chants a mantra: "I am happy because I choose to be happy." This maddens her sourly stoic companion Margaret "Maggie" Civil, movingly portrayed by that remarkable screen actress Betsy Palmer (Mister Roberts).

Particularly annoying is Kitty's penchant for declaiming, "Oh, for a muse of fire!" whenever she is at a loss for words to express her burgeoning emotions. Kitty has gone to lectures in Bridgeport on "Nurturing your inner child." Frigidly, Maggie retorts, "I say: Stifle it!"

These neighbors had traveled together to Barbados some years before, but Kitty complains they don't really know each other. Nonsense, Maggie responds. "We know each other; we love each other. We just don't particularly like each other."

At the airport, their reservations lost in the computer, they encounter a reservation clerk who announces the boarding of the plane with the gyrations of a rock star, setting the absurdist tone for much of the humor.

Leather seats roll forward and a cloud-filled sky appears overhead, changing the scene from the airport to onboard the plane. The joking reservations clerk mutates into a joking flight attendant and, subsequently, this same actor will portray a myriad cast of characters the ladies will encounter on their trek.

Presently, Kitty will see Ganesha and her bloodied son Walter apparently riding on the wing--a bizarre image that summarizes McNally's bold theatricality. Where the tip of the wing would be, Ganesha sits on a stool, wearing an aviator's scarf, blown by a portable electric fan.

Kitty's soul is the first plumbed. She is taking this trip to heal her heart from the tragic loss of her son. Six young African-American fag bashers, bearing bats, chains and a golf club, have beaten Walter to death. Unable to accept Walter's homosexuality until he was brutally murdered, Kitty is now engulfed in both grief and guilt. Her goal is to learn to "allow; accept; be."

Kitty hums mindlessly, a leitmotif that McNally will eventually use to lift the evening into full-throated songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Good Night, Ladies."

Watching the Indian dawn from the balcony of their first hotel room in Bombay, Kitty encounters a young man whose body is ravaged by AIDS. He tells her he is a doctor: "A physician who cannot heal himself!" He sings to himself "Blow the Wind Southerly," which was Walter's favorite song. Kitty embraces him as a surrogate for her son.

Below the balcony, the three characters can see the ground writhing with humanity. Impulsively, the young doctor and Kitty rush out into the square to experience India.

Maggie is left alone on the balcony, where she encounters a Japanese traveler and his wife. It is to the wife she confesses two central secrets: She lost her 4-year-old child in a traffic accident when he pulled away from his mother as she unsmudged his face. The secret tragedy is like a cancer in her heart and, indeed, her second revelation is that she has just discovered a lump in her right breast. "Why India?" she muses. "I heard it would heal."

"Why must they die?" demands Kitty of Ganesha, referring to all the young victims of AIDS. "Why not?" responds the innocently smiling god. Seeking her own salvation, Kitty exclaims, "Before I die, I want to kiss a leper, fully on the lips." Ganesha tells her: "Love him."

But the corpse-filled waters of the Ganges prove too much even for Kitty, and she winds up on the bathroom floor, being sick. The hotel manager is cynical: "That's how most of them see India--at the bottom of a toilet bowl."

McNally's brilliant sense of theatricality utilizes every opportunity to dazzle us. His wry observations proliferate amid the spectacle. For example, he uses a puppet show to dramatize how Ganesha received the head of an elephant. "In India, we participate in theatre. We don't just sit back with folded arms and say: 'Show me!'"

As the two women briefly separate on different adventures, Maggie spends some time attempting to communicate with a Dutch tourist. She describes her favorite painting, "Woman Bathing" by Rembrandt. She steps into the river and lifts her skirt, giving us an eyeful of Palmer's elegantly sexy gams.

As their journey draws to a close, there is a shower of gold from heaven, and the two women stand in awe, bathed by the reflected white light of the Taj Mahal.

The production is ably directed by Andrew J. Traister, who staged the memorable ATC version of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. There are minor quibbles to be made (some awkward moments of staging, and neither the sound nor lights are up to ATC's usual high standards), but Traister has guided his actors to mostly truthful and always imaginative performances.

In his first appearance as Walter, John Walcutt almost ruins the powerful description of his murder because he is filled with such self-pity, but fortunately he reins in most impulses to exaggerate. David Paul Francis is enchanting in the many roles embodied by Ganesha; appropriately elusive, yet voluptuous. But it is in the performances of the two women that the play soars to life, transcending physical limitations and winging away the audience on a flight of imagination that is both subtly amusing and profoundly moving.

When they return home to drastically altered circumstances, Kitty and Maggie receive a postcard from the young doctor asking if they visited the Taj Mahal: "Didn't you die just a little when you saw it?" You will die a little when you see A Perfect Ganesh, but the reward is a beatific sense of enlightenment.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of A Perfect Ganesh continues
through Saturday, May 4, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Marshall W. Mason