SARATOGA SPRINGS – By the time the early 1970s rolled around, any promise perceived of a train bound for glory on a fast track to the Aquarian Age had instead become supplanted by a cranky subway car departing a graffiti-stained station with a congregation of misfits aboard.
It is these characters of humanity – Rake the hustler, Fick the junkie, Al the alcoholic, and Franny the transvestite prostitute – put on display, in all their grit and glory in the staging of Skidmore Theater’s presentation of “Balm In Gilead.” The play, scripted by Lanford Wilson, premiered Off Off Broadway at La MaMa in 1965 and a generation later re-set to take place in the early 1970s.
The geography is uptown Manhattan, the setting an all-night diner where characters drift in and out against a backdrop of booths and swiveling stools that lean on a cheesy, diamond-motif counter topped by metal napkin holders, red and yellow plastic-spout squeeze bottles, and a big, clunky cash register.
Under the direction of Phil Soltanoff - a veteran of recent projects staged in Austin, Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York City - the two dozen or so Skidmore College players convincingly convey a scenario with a talented realism that certainly pre-dates the time before their own existence on earth if not their parents, in providing a voyeuristic experience of a collection of characters whose lives are simultaneously humorous and tragic.
Sydney Tennant portrays the doe-eyed Darlene - a naïve, newly transplanted New Yorker - with credible splendor, marathon monologuing deep into the night, expressing every single thought that pours from her mind with a blend of child-like innocence and annoying animation. She engages even the most hardened characters seated in the 24-hour diner in a shared humanity, if only for a fleeting moment. When she concludes her soliloquy by saying “Anyway, to make a long story short…” it cracks everyone up, characters and audience alike.
In John - the grungy, apron-draped cafe manager portrayed by Jacob Hudson who alternates his time between cooking in the kitchen and showing non-paying customers the door - and Kay, the yellow- garbed waitress played by Anabel Milton who runs around taking coffee orders and wiping down tables – the play depicts a solid foundation of the drab, bleak realities of the working class. It stands in high contrast to the commotion of platinum blonde wigs and wounded blue jeans, hot pants, leather thigh-high boots and fishnet stockings, silver sequined miniskirts and post-hippie fringe in a sleaze-and-glam cacophony that lives somewhere between a New York Dolls concert and a Starsky & Hutch TV show.
Lulu Fairclough-Stewart especially shines as the oh-so-bored, scarlet-haired Ann, providing a perfect foil to Darlene’s ramblings, nursing a cigarette and firmly encased in her hard shell of emotional body armor, before heading back into the street, past a shuttered bodega and an alleyway framed by trash, to make her living. Chris Naughton is convincing as well in a lead role as the mustached drug dealer Joe, for whom the naïve Darlene falls.
The ensemble as a whole weaves its work like a large orchestra, a series of direct and non-direct actions conveying the mayhem with an authenticity; These student actors bring the scenes to life.
An appropriate soundtrack blares out the diner jukebox throughout: Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River,” “Thunder Road,” and “Jungleland,” and “Waltzing Matilda” sung by Tom Waits, that fittingly sprinkles the optimistic hope of escape onto on-the-nod moments of despair.
After the final curtain call, the characters return for one more go-around the diner, reminiscent of the dusky cycling at the conclusion of the Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter,” and which leaves the open question: are we moving on to a grander time in this life, or being forced to return to our destiny, time and again?
Skidmore Theater Presents “Balm In Gilead,” by Lanford Wilson. Director: Phil Soltanoff.
Performances at 8 p.m. Friday, April 21 and Saturday, April 22, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 23. Skidmore College: Janet Kinghorn Bernhard Mainstage. Tickets are $12 adult, $8 students and faculty. After the April 22 performance of Balm in Gilead, the Skidmore Theater Department will host its annual house party. “That 70’s House Party,” is a celebratory event to recognize the department’s achievements this year.