Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through October 29
Playwright Alessandro Camon, an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for The Messenger, is deeply interested in the soul-destroying practice of solitary confinement, and in the experiences of crime survivors — people who lost loved ones to murder. He deals powerfully with both issues in this two-person play.
The subject matter sounds grim, and it is, but the grimness is relieved by the sharpness, vividness and humor of the writing, and the eloquent performances by the two actors. While both are onstage almost throughout, they don’t interact till near the end.
We see Gabriel Wayland (Alex Hernandez) in the bleak prison cell where he’s attempting to survive a life sentence for murdering a member of a rival gang who had invaded his turf. On the other side of the stage, we see Anna Jackson (Tonya Pinkins, Caroline or Change), alone in her silent kitchen. She became a single mother when her policeman husband died, leaving her to raise their son on her own. She invested her whole life in raising the boy to be a policeman, like his father. He was her pride and joy, and she adored him. When he was shot and killed in the line of duty, she was devastated.
Both Gabriel and Anna are totally isolated — he by the walls of his cell and she by the impenetrable numbness brought on by the loss of her son. In alternating scenes, they tell their stories. He’s driven to self-destructive behavior by prolonged solitary confinement. And we learn how the street smarts he acquired in his old neighborhood put him hopelessly at odds with the legal system, and made him its inevitable victim. But he discovers books and begins to educate himself.
Anna discovers that the compassion of friends who promise to “be there for you” has a time limit. She rails against liberals concerned about the perpetrators and their deprived childhoods (like the boys who sing “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story, they’re depraved because they’re deprived.) Anna is having none of that: Plenty survive hard lives without becoming murderers, she says, and she has no regard for those who kill. When she’s invited to be a guest speaker at Gabriel’s prison, her rage boils over, in a way that, surprisingly, he can identify with. There seems to be no real connection between the two, till almost the end when we, along with them, discover an unexpected link.
It is impressive just how much visceral drama Camon unleashes in what is essentially a pair of interlinking monologues. The two characters meet face to face only at the final curtain. There is plenty of gallows humor, and much implied social comment and protest. But the play is always gripping, due to the splendid performances by Pinkins and Hernandez. His is fraught with gut-wrenching anger and desperation, and hers with the grief which makes all subsequent relationships seem meaningless. Both are groping for wholeness and reconciliation.
Like most good directors, Bart DeLorenzo gets the job done wonderfully without ever showing his hand. Francois-Pierre Couture’s realistic architectural sets enhance the play’s effect, as do the lighting by Pablo Santiago-Brandwein and the sound by John Zalewski.
Belle Reve Theatre Company at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S Spring St., Los Angeles. Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Mon., Oct. 16 & 23, 7:30; Sun., Oct. 16 & 29, 3 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 22, 5 p.m. (213) 489-0994 or www.bellerevetheatre.com or www.thelatc.org. Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission.