Arts & Culture » Theater

A Perfect Ganesh takes us on a sluggish journey


For those of us who have not yet made that healing pilgrimage to India, a note of clarification: Ganesha is a Hindu god, the remover of obstacles, a lord of beginnings, even a patron of the arts. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) A simple definition, yet it helps us to understand why Terrence McNally uses this jolly, elephant-headed deity as the talisman for his stark 1993 play, A Perfect Ganesh. For if anyone needs to remove obstacles and begin anew, it's the two patrician housewives from Connecticut with whom we make this lengthy trek halfway around the world and into the past.

Although Margaret (Jane Abling) and Katherine (Renee Sevier-Monsey) are frequent traveling companions, they seem to be more comfortable with each other than actually close. Both women lost their first-born sons to violence. Each mother has been suffocating from silent grief for far too long. Both need, like Ganesha, to choose to be happy. And so to India.

If, for our protagonists, theirs is a journey into a dreamscape, for a viewer attending this West End Players Guild production, it is a journey into the imagination. Nick Uhlmansiek's spare set design is comprised of a series of muslin-draped platforms. The clean white fabric seems an apt metaphor for spiritual India, yet it also transforms the stage into a kind of operating room, where surgery can be performed on the psyches of these two wounded women. The set's very simplicity also demands that we viewers must conjure in our minds all that is described. The one exception is Ganesha himself. Happily resplendent in a jewel-encrusted crown, Steve Callahan's narrator-god is a roly-poly imp who speaks to us with terminal optimism from behind the tusks and trunk of his elephant mask. Callahan's Ganesha makes for an amiable guide, all-knowing yet never judgmental.

A Perfect Ganesh has been likened to Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (perhaps because both AIDS-themed plays opened in New York at the same time). But there are even more striking parallels with Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which received a gorgeous staging last week by the Webster Conservatory. Both scripts recount the past and foretell the future with an almost careless abandon. Both probe the magnificence and insignificance of the human spirit. Both plays rely on narrators — Our Town's Stage Manager and Ganesha himself — who not only move the action forward but also portray characters within the story.

But at a certain point the comparisons become contrasts. Whereas the original Our Town, which debuted in Depression-era 1938 and employed a cast of 49 (Webster Conservatory used 20), Ganesh is a play for four actors, one of whom, simply named Man, enacts multiple roles. Matt Hanify brings an admirable variety of attitudes to these ancillary characters. Yet one can't help but wonder if McNally resorted to this ploy by choice or because of economic necessity.

And whereas Our Town builds to a third act so compelling that the viewer is almost afraid to take a breath for fear of disturbing the scheme of life onstage, by this play's end Ganesh loses the momentum and good will it established early on. There's a sense that director Sean Ruprecht-Belt had made judicious trims in the text. But there is one thing the director cannot do — and that is rewrite the play. Just when A Perfect Ganesh should be building to climax and resolution, McNally's plot stalls. Late in the evening an eerie pall settles over the proceedings, and what had been an interesting drama devolves into a lengthy lament. Ganesha would have us strive for a world of reconciliation, renewal and rebirth. But as the evening drags on, here, a curtain call would have been a lot more rewarding.

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