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A CurtainUp DC Reviewby Dolores Whiskeyman
Heaven, George F. Walker's new comedy, is a bit like being
rum-punch drunk on a roller coaster: those wild curves are lots of fun --
but wait till the ride is over.
Whoops. That's when you start to wonder at the wisdom of it all.
Heaven opened Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's 21st season on
Sept. 2. It swings wildly between moments of high comedy and brutal
violence, but it's only when the lights come down that the holes in the
script loom large. You don't notice them so much when the thing is on the
tracks. And thanks to director Howard Shalwitz and a remarkable cast --
particularly Rick Foucheux as a corrupt, embittered cop and Mitchell
Hebert as a jaded attorney -- Heaven is quite a ride.
This is the American premiere of a new play by a Canadian writer best
known for antic comedy. But while Heaven is darkly funny, it is
fundamentally an angry play about a screwed up universe--in which eternal
salvation is sometimes available to the most undeserving simply on the
basis of a technicality.
The play opens in a park in a rough section of a Canadian city, where
Karl Smith (Foucheux) is drinking himself stupid over the suicide of a
fellow cop. He blames that death on James Joyce ďJimmyĒ Milliken (Hebert),
a civil rights lawyer from the old neighborhood who sacrificed friendship
for career advancement.
Jimmy has his own problems. A closet bigot with a crumbling marriage,
he lashes out constantly with an acid tongue. Much of his venom is aimed
at his wife, Judy (Naomi Jacobson), and her rabbi, David (John Lescault),
whom Jimmy suspects of trying to break up his marriage. Jimmy, it seems,
is a lapsed Catholic whose marriage to Judy is based in part on rebellion.
When Judy returns to the faith she abandoned to marry him--out of
"loneliness," she explains -- Jimmy is threatened. Worse -- she is
pregnant and wants an abortion.
So Jimmy takes out his torment on a panhandler, Derek (David Lamont
Wilson), needling him with racial slurs and picking a fight that literally
puts Jimmy in a wheelchair. Jimmy has a tender side as well, though. It
comes out in his ministrations to a homeless 16-year-old heroin addict,
Sissy (Emerie Geiger Snyder), a guileless child of simple wisdom, as, of
course, all 16-year-old heroin addicts are.
And all this is only the set-up -- cranking the cars, as it were, to
the edge of that first, gut-wrenching drop that sends your heart soaring
into your throat. That moment occurs when Judy stumbles upon Karl giving
poor Derek a working over for failing to deliver a key piece of
contraband. What happens next is one of the most shocking scenes Iíve
witnessed on stage -- brutal, almost unwatchable, and yet ó we
That would be point enough for any play, but itís not the point Walker
is making, apparently. In this play, death is just another plot twist to
get us to scenes of paradise. For heaven, in Walker's mind, is a lot like
Fantasy Island -- where you get to be what you could never be on
earth. And dammit, it's fun.
The bulk of the play from there concerns redemption -- Jimmy's mostly
-- and the mission he is dispatched to carry forth -- to reclaim his lost
humanity. We donít mind watching him do it. Hebert is a wonderful actor
whose talents overcome the weaknesses of the text.
For Walker has not written characters, but billboards for his
philosophy. Jimmy is downright vile at points -- a sour liberal who
secretly despises his clientele, nasty beyond any apparent motivation to
be nasty. Karl is even worse -- confessing to his crimes for no good
reason, covering his tracks with violence when he clearly isnít cornered
-- these are the actions of someone who isnít just bad, but crazy. And
Judy is a shrew.
The most sympathetically written character is the rabbi, whom Lescault
plays with a sense of moral urgency -- a man who sees the work before him
and gets to it -- who overcomes his grief in order to take care of those
who are in much worse shape than he is.
And then thereís our heroin addict, always crossing the stage on a
unicycle or stilts -- a living metaphor, I suppose, for the carnival
aspect of human existence -- this great circus we call life on earth? I
In the end it almost doesnít matter. Walker closes with a riotiously
funny monologue by Jimmy and the lights go down on a happy
by George Walker
With Mitchell Hebert, Naomi Jacobson, Rick Foucheux, John Lescault,
David Lamont Wilson and Emerie Geiger Snyder
Set Design: Jim
Lighting Design: Jay A. Herzog
Design: Edu. Bernadino
Sound Design: Hana Sellers
Fight Choreographer: John Gurski
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church Street
Web Site: www.woollymammoth.net
Opened Sept. 2, 2000 Closes October 1, 2000.
Dolores Whiskeyman Sept. 6 based on a Sept. 2