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A CurtainUp Review
The Language of Trees
Now having its world premiere, The Language of Trees by Steven Levenson is a heartbreaking, beautifully written play wisely and winningly tinged with humor. It isn't surprising that Levenson, a graduate of Brown University and a student of Paula Vogel, deftly employs touches of magic realism amid highly lyrical transitions within his otherwise down-to-earth play. The complexities of the staging, and they are considerable, have been handled with finesse by director Alex Timbers. In it, a mother and her 7 year-old son deal with the absence of the father, a translator of languages/private contractor who has accepted a six-month assignment in the war zone.
Since the United States-led invasion of Iraq, there have been many plays focused on the war, often comprised of real life accounts, unearthed testimonials, and documented files. These have served to open our eyes. The Language of Trees opens our hearts and in a way that has not nearly been explored enough. The play takes place during the early spring and summer of 2003 and begins in the kitchen of the Pinkerstone's home. Denton (Michael Hayden) comes into the kitchen dressed in his spanking new camouflage fatigues. He is impressed by the neon name tag he will wear. He is as calm and reassuring as his wife Loretta (Natalie Gold) appears visibly unsettled enough to ruin the breakfast. Their son Eben (Gio Perez) is precocious, a burgeoning brainiac, as intellectually curious as he is an ardent loner.
Although Denton's absence has its effect on Eben, it devastates Loretta, who neglects the house and forgets to pack Eben's school lunches. Tensions arise not only between Loretta and Eben, but also between Loretta and Kay (Maggie Burke), a nosy, but also kindly, neighbor who feels the need to make increasingly intrusive visits. In the six years living next door to one another, the women have never met. When Kay brings Loretta a gift basket to say "we support the troupes," in recognition of Denton's husband's courage and sacrifice, Loretta resists Kay's effusiveness and insists that her husband is not a soldier but a private contractor. Kay notices, however, that Loretta looks forlorn and unable to cope. Kay's aggressive, well-meaning but not always appreciated tactics, including the reading aloud of Bush's "mission accomplished" speech, as well as cooking dinners. She also manages to create problems between her and Eben.
Right from the start and a "show and tell" speech at school, Perez (splendidly and purposely portrayed by an actor who is obviously not 7 years-old), is immediately endearing and becomes a major catalyst for the emotional change in the home as he turns rebellious and remote, but mostly unable to fully comprehend the reality of the situation. His wish, in that he is a budding environmentalist, is that his father returns home to translate for him the language of trees.
Hayden, whose acting assignments have been as amazingly diverse as they have been lauded, brings a poignant and painful resonance to his role as a man who, in the solitude of his cell, succumbs to fantasy. The scenes between Gold as the cautious Loretta, and Burke, as the often over-bearing and just as often amusing Kay, give the play a real kick. Gold's defensive responses, as Loretta, are wonderfully contrasted against Burke's unwittingly disarming provocations as the neighbor whom we learn has sorrows of her own to reveal.
Levenson's play is structured so that Denton is seen off to the side cloaked in semi-darkness. Given a gun and helmet, Denton's speaks his letters home. They are impassioned and expressed in a heightened lyrical prose that defines him as a man of letters. After he has been "arrested for criminal activities" and put in a cell, Denton hallucinates visits with Loretta and even two visits, one hopeful, one disillusioning, by Bill Clinton (Michael Warner). An impressionistic image of a tree is on the other side of Cameron Anderson's nicely conceived modest kitchen setting and allows the actors moments in the out-of-doors. David Weiner's lighting nicely fulfills its task to illuminate and differentiate fantasy with the reality.