Reviewed by Myron Meisel
The Fountain Theatre
Extended through March 28
Spending any extended time in a desert like our own Mojave inevitably becomes a transformative experience, gradually and continually altering one’s perceptions of our place in a natural environment. It’s eerie the way one’s sensibility adjusts to the desert’s variety and pulse as our awareness continues to fine-tune.
The Fountain’s co-artistic director, Stephen Sachs, has written many strong plays, from his under-recognized adaptation last year of Citizen: An American Lyric to Bakersfield Mist, Heart Songs, Miss Julie: Freedom Summer, Gilgamesh (a personal favorite), and his greatest success, Sweet Nothing in my Ear. He’s knows how to fashion crackling dramatic confrontations that lend themselves handily to vivid performance. His latest two-hander, Dream Catcher, splendidly showcases his talent and those of all his collaborators, though to lesser results than much of his previous work.
On designer Jeffrey McLaughlin’s circular set, around which the audience is arrayed, artfully deployed sand (a motif which could well have been recycled from The Fountain’s recent Athol Fugard production) denotes an arena in which two lovers confront their competing and apparently irreconcilable moral sensibilities. Roy (Brian Tichnell), an idealistic and self-absorbed young engineer attached to a massive solar power project, has been having an affair with Opal (Elizabeth Frances, feral and fine), a self-loathing “rez chick,” until she now confronts him with her discovery of bone fragments, evidence that the vast complex of mirrors is being erected on a tribal burial ground.
What follows involves a spirited argument over whether the greater good is served by honoring, as the law requires, the sanctity of the dying Mojave culture, or making (profitable) progress toward reversing disastrous global warming that threatens the continued existence of unfathomable numbers of species, humankind perhaps among them. A colloquy concerning conflicting universal values tracks the ambiguities and betrayals of their own problematic relationship. Palpable attraction and glints of genuine affection complicate the implacable clash of goals, and by extension, of dreams.
Sachs strenuously strives for even-handedness as the characters go at one another hammer and tongs, and the boundaries between ideology and their respective senses of self effectively blur. He writes good verbal fights, and director Cameron Watson keeps the heat at high boil with determination to preserve the momentum, while the committed actors limn their contrasts with admirable focus and considerable charisma. Sachs shrewdly contrives to make each of them both transparently “right” and perceptibly “wrong,” which lends these standard-bearers of disputation a heady thicket of human frailty to hack through, as they cannot budge from their absolute (and defensible) views.
Nevertheless, the play never transcends the impression that the characters are functioning primarily as mouthpieces for competing visions of life, their class and gender distinctions relegating them to unresolvably opposed positions. The rhetoric on both sides rises to eloquence as the dialogue is performed, but too often it nevertheless sounds like dialogue. Sachs may cleverly animate the impasse of ideas and divergent ethics, yet they cannot escape the arbitrary artificiality of his essential concept.
And I think he makes a substantive misstep in approaching the issues in such binary opposition: it makes for a clear-cut donnybrook of wills and motivations while scanting complexity in favor of outright didacticism. It’s one thing to observe that people of faith tend to presume people of science represent just an alternative, equally subjective faith, and still another to suggest objective scientific research, itself ever-doubting and open to evidentiary change, may be just another myth we tell ourselves, indistinguishable from a preposterous creation story. Whatever civilization we can still lay claim to rests upon Galileo’s whispered “and yet it moves.”
Dream Catcher makes for an often compelling theatrical experience, though rarely an adequately credible drama.
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., E. Hollywood; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., variously at 3 p.m. or 7 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through March 28 (no performances Easter Sunday). (323) 663-1525, fountaintheatre.com. Running time: One hour, twenty minutes.