Expressing exuberance when quoted in a 1982 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article as his new play Angels Fall worked its way towards Broadway, playwright Lanford Wilson exclaimed, “The writing is as good as anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think I’ve ever had a show that audiences liked so much, except maybe Talley’s Folly.” Even as nominated for the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play (Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy won), the play doesn’t live up to Wilson’s hopeful hyperbole. Its plot unfolds as a gimmick where a group of unconnected lost souls cross paths in a remote New Mexico Catholic chapel, held hostage by a nuclear accident at a nearby uranium mine. Act One fires up by inviting the audience in to watch intriguing character studies and blossoming conflicts. Act Two sags as preachy catharsis and predictable resolution within “well-made play” context sacrifice depth and substance for easy sentimentality and tidy packaging. What does Angels Fall require to succeed as an evening’s viable entertainment? Masterful direction and a solid, strong cast. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ production directed by Rene Moreno does not disappoint on any level.
Moreno concocts magic onstage, every time he’s faced with complex, well-written characters and skilled artists who follow his bidding. As a director he opens a clear pathway for actors to explore every nuance of the emotions a playwright may have barely hinted at in the script. Then, while he has each actor “stewing” in his or her own character’s juice, Moreno finds resonant arcs and beats and moments of reflection in the plot to guide his well-primed ensemble through that bolster motivation and create elegant, perfectly timed stage pictures. It must be a real delight for any fine actor to open heart and soul to this level of creative resourcefulness and guidance.
Act One of Angels Fall really comes across “as good as anything I’ve ever done” with Moreno’s direction of this solid ensemble. James Crawford and Allison Pistorius drive the show’s energy and dominate each scene with abundant, well-matched charisma and talent. Playing a husband and younger wife en route to an exclusive sanitarium where he has been sent after a mid-life crisis, the duo maintains a believable, habituated ease together even as he grows more agitated and out of control with the claustrophobic situation. Crawford’s performance, exploding Act One’s conclusion in a crescendo of personal revelation, is casebook perfect in delivery and expression. Pistorius’ measured demeanor as his wife reveals her embarrassment at the predicament but lets the audience know this is not her husband’s “first” tantrum. It’s fun watching two actors play this well together.
Sue Loncar and Jake Buchanan play a contrasting couple, she a wealthy, recently widowed art gallery and estate owner, he her “boy toy” of an aspiring tennis player and hopeless narcissist. Another well-matched duo, they never resort to stereotypical caricature (as they might, given the lighter comedic elements of their relationship) but create tangible, interesting characters that find and fight their own demons with honesty and humanity. Loncar works best on stage when she plays a role driven by reflection, where all is not revealed on the surface. Easy to judge and dismiss the couple’s relationship at first, as exploitative, yet Wilson’s script coupled with Moreno’s direction of two capable, willing actors make the audience re-evaluate them by the end of Act One.
Ivan Jasso and H. Frances Fuselier portray the play’s place anchors, the region’s Native American doctor and the chapel’s priest with an overactive drive to fix outcomes. Both unhappy and at odds when the play begins, one more evidently so than the other, the tension in these characters’ relationship seems to accelerate with the “trials” the other characters endure. Both actors fill their roles with sensitivity and sincerity. The priest seems to dominate much of Act Two; the play stalls as his pounded message overrides plausibility and leaves behind the real world where everyone’s life problems don’t get neatly fixed by the end of an evening’s conversation. It’s fun to watch what Rene Moreno does with this solid cast. Don’t go expecting to see a great play, but his most worthy production serves Art’s Muse well.
Rodney Dobbs’ set design of a tiny, austere roadside chapel creates that special essence of northern New Mexico in intimate detail. Kenneth Farnsworth’s light design doesn’t quite catch the ethereal luminosity of the desert’s light and shadow play, but that would be hard to duplicate under any circumstance. Mason York’s sound design and Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes add the right flavor and texture to the setting and each character’s personality. May attending this play offer no ”willful disturbance” in your “suspension of disbelief’, but reinforce your belief in the capacity of good theatre to illuminate and entertain.
Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall runs through May 12, 2013, with one intermission.
Contemporary Theater of Dallas 5601 Sears St, Dallas, TX
contemporarytheatreofdallas.com (214) 828-0094
PHOTOS by GEORGE WADA