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Heal the Pain?

Latest Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry wanders into choppy spiritual waters

Babs Dentz grooms Michael Zemarel

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/19/2009

The Ape on the Church Steps

By JM Dinson

Presented by the Theatrical Mining Company through Aug. 30 at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland's LeClerc Hall

Local playwright JM Dinson has the good sense to make going insane look like the only sane response to a disintegrating world. In his Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry The Ape on the Church Steps, a son's mind splits pyrotechnically apart after coming-of-age with his father isolated in a psychiatric care facility and his mother escaping into crystals, Tarot cards, and other incense enlightenment. Sadly, Dinson pillows this mental fragmentation into a touchy-feely, pan-religious spiritual story of healing that feels downright hokey.

As the play opens, 22-year-old Arthur Easy Jr. (Michael Zemarel) has come home from his job in Chicago seeking his father's help for the first time since his sister Annie was struck by a car and killed eight years earlier. Arthur Easy Sr. (Steve Lichtenstein) witnessed that accident, and ever since he has hallucinated entire conversations and arguments with Jesus (Marc Stevens), less the Christian son of God per se than a down-to-earth soul brother equally capable of riffing on Buddhist or Christian ideas. Since entering the facility, Arthur Sr. has agreed to see his wife, Rose (Babs Dentz), once, and refused all other visits. It's the reason why Dr. Luvitz (William Amland) cautions the junior Easy that he can't promise that his father will want to see him. The young man is visibly upset by the news, which endears him to the facility's empathetic art therapist Faith (Kate McKenna).

Art Jr. is so stricken because his mother, who also abandoned him to her spiritual paraphernalia following Annie's death and Art Sr.'s mental breakdown, is about to sell his childhood home--and everything else she owns--and pursue a global spiritual journey to find her true self. Art Jr. doesn't understand why she's doing this at all, and he's hoping that his father, who he has never asked for anything at all, might be able to help him persuade his mother not to divest herself of her earthly belongings before embarking on a global vision quest to who knows where. Faith, against the doctor's wishes, arranges a chance meeting between Art and his father, and when the son sees just how not in touch with reality his father is, he quite plainly goes apeshit, retreating into his primate mind and physically behaving like a gorilla--an occasionally witty and reflective gorilla, but a gorilla nonetheless.

Zemarel appears onstage as the play opens and, at first, his series of tics and downward-cast eyes look like the stage fright of a young performer. It soon becomes clear, however, that Art has already falling apart well before the play even begins, and his verbal and interpersonal hesitations and stumbles are merely the physical manifestations of a disturbed mind trying to maintain the façade of a person in control. Once he loses that control, Zemarel does a great ape.

Lichtenstein, too, does a good possible nutjob. Art Sr. is as matter-of-fact and ornery with his doctor and art therapist as he is with his hallucination, at times even apologizing for how upset Jesus is making him. And Lichtenstein and Stevens share the sort of lively, contentious banter of two people who know how to push each other's buttons. That very banter, though, gets to be a bit much. Halfway through the first of the play's two acts, it becomes quite clear that Ape is hurtling itself toward some notion of recovery, to begin down the path toward closure. And when it eventually gets there, it does so in the language of spirituality about the alpha and the omega and letting go and the power of creation and forgiveness and acceptance and other such vocabulary words that make the play feel like the creative public step of an eventual 12.

No offense, but everybody brings preconceived notions to any sort of even quasi-religious/spiritual discussion. And while I'm unreligious enough to find the Biblical Jesus as written a bit of an asshole, I'm also Catholic-raised enough to find lowercase "spirituality" about as existentially comforting and metaphysically useful as children's aspirin. Simply put: the thematic world of The Ape on the Church Steps doesn't speak to me at all.

People more open-minded may find the story more rewarding and compelling. As is, The Ape on the Church Steps is a competently acted and quite frequently funny story of a family torn asunder by a shocking traumatic event. How the playwright chooses to have them confront it, though, feels infelicitous and convenient.

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