Grapple Polishers

In the past, I've carped about Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's lamentable productions and its less-than-kosher choice of material. But the company more than makes up for past indiscretions with its current staging of Jonathan Tolins' modern morality play The Twilight of the Golds. Unlike AJTC's usual lite fare, Twilight is a drama that's lousy with issues: Jewish family life, homophobia, genetic manipulation and abortion, all propped against metaphorical references to grand opera and Nazism.

Tolins' story rests somewhere between science fiction and next month's headlines: When med-school dropout Suzanne (Michelle Gardner) becomes pregnant, her husband Rob (John Haubner), a research scientist who's involved in the genetic testing of unborn children, arranges to run some of his top-secret tests on his wife. When it's determined that their unborn baby will be homosexual, great drama ensues. The central discussion becomes about the pros and cons of bearing a child destined to be "different," and the focus shifts to the relationship between Suzanne and her gay brother, David (Richard Trujillo), who contends that if Suzanne aborts her baby, she is in effect killing David.

There are some truly shocking moments: When David confronts his parents about Suzanne's situation, his father (Nicolas Glaeser) confesses that he thinks of his son as "sick and diseased." And his mother (Judy LeBeau) admits she would have chosen abortion if she'd known he was going to turn out "that way." Tolins raises more questions than any one play can answer: What's the difference between genetic manipulation and Nazi eugenics? Should there really be more gay people--or any other particular kind of people--in the world? Are women merely baby machines, meant to create the kind of children their husbands or parents or siblings want them to?

Twilight is issue-oriented theater that, in this production, provides some fine ensemble acting. Glaeser is excellent in his dramatic scenes as a father who struggles to be open-minded about his gay son. Where Glaeser succeeds at playing older than his age, LeBeau appears too young to be the mother of two kids pushing 30. (Perhaps LeBeau's casting was inspired by Faye Dunaway's portrayal in the movie version of Twilight. Dunaway was far too glamorous and--thanks to some expert cosmetic surgery--much too youthful-looking as the mother.) Haubner clearly isn't ready to play leads, but Trujillo embroiders an already showy role with grand, operatic gestures and--if it weren't for Gardner's riveting performance--his would be the star turn here.

But Gardner, a fine actress who was long overdue for a straight dramatic part, walks away with most of Twilight. While the Golds rage like a hurricane around her, Gardner plays Suzanne as the eye of that hurricane, calm and thoughtful and, eventually, accountable for a choice that destroys her family. I hope casting directors will take note of Gardner's performance and won't let her return to the obscurity of supporting roles at community theaters.

In the end, not much is resolved, either for the Golds or for humankind, and The Twilight of the Golds was blasted by the New York critics for its lack of resolution and its stiff, uninteresting direction--improved on here by Matthew Mazuroski. There are too many questions raised here, and any self-respecting homosexual will be offended by the notion that being gay is so difficult and unpleasant that not living at all is somehow better. But the play soars when Tolins brings it down to simple, brittle exchanges, as when David tells his sister, "Every human being is a tapestry. If you pull one thread, one undesirable trait, the whole thing falls apart and you end up looking at the wall."

The Twilight of the Golds continues through Sunday, March 1, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more information, see the Performance listing in Thrills.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela