Let There Be Light

In an effort to market the newest commandment -- Thou Shalt Have Family Values -- both major political parties have made attempts to define just what a family is. According to their guidelines, several groups didn't cut the mustard. Forget gay couples and straight married ones without children. And forget many other tightly bonded souls who are in constant contact, giving each other daily solace and support but who don't fit into the one-and-a-half-kids two-car-garage thing.

One could argue that unless the entire world sees itself as a family, nothing will have any value.

In reality, de facto families develop in offices, in clubs, on golf courses, and in stadiums. Once, a large "family" gathered for grand music on Max Yasgur's Farm near Woodstock, New York. In Manhattan, kinfolk habitually congregate in local bars or coffee shops to enact rituals of humanus familias valuas: Amidst hamburger grease and decibel-defying noise, from the Bowery to Upper Broadway, natives hide beside the steamy counter, safe from the bitter cold and the mo' bitter muggers. There, even hardened New Yorkers find a haven and sometimes find others similarly lost in the cave.

Our coffee shop was the Chariot; it stood at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. My friends and I would hang there and, after a while, knew the regulars -- the drag queen on roller skates, the blind NYU professor, the local cop who told stories in repulsive detail. After many years of daily interaction, we greeted each other by name, told secrets, and were missed if we didn't stop in. We became a family; and for some, it was the only one left.

The coffee-shop family that director Juan Cejas and the ACME Acting Company embody through two potent acts of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead includes addicts and whores, dealers and dykes, every example of society's sediment. To appreciate the show, see yourself not as a spectator but a visitor to their frequent family get-togethers. Filled with shock, tumult, surprises, and imaginative turns, Balm is not a piece you passively watch but actively appreciate, despite some teensy flaws.

One can see how ACME set its tone of alternative theater when it presented this work as its first production, five years ago. Taking healthy risks, Cejas placed more than twenty actors in and around the stage, sometimes all at once, often talking over each other, fighting, loving, connecting, and breaking apart. Now he's brought Balm back to ACME's new space, and in the cavernous, dissipated warehouse-theater, the play finds a perfect backdrop.

The plot arises gradually out of chaos, built from the intermixture of losers, and although there's a thin love story between the motor-mouthed Chicago exile, Darlene, and the reluctant heroin pusher, Joe, it's really beside the point. Many of the characters lingering around the shop pack more punch and say more about finding family on the fringes of life.

Of the massive cast, two actors deserve special attention for forceful, convincing work and for capturing that wry New York alienation. Peter Paul de Leo as the disheveled, homeless Rake and Ellen Rae Littman as Ann, the whore with a heart of bruises, are alone worth the price of admission. Add to their bleak magic Cejas's masterful conducting, Betsy P. Cardwell's intelligent lighting, background music well timed and well chosen from the Boss's pure grit catalogue, and you end up with theater the way it's meant to be: enterprising and effective.

As with any production of such size, total perfection can't be produced from a limited budget and limited rehearsal time (all actors donated their services to help save ACME from potential financial ruin). Bette Pipes wrongs her character; she plays Darlene as though she were from Podunk rather than Chicago, falling into a singsong, stereotypical rube stance with nada underneath. Even more unfortunately, a long monologue in Act Two -- which Cejas could have trimmed -- highlights her weaknesses. Instead of reliving an event that she describes in agonizing detail, she relies on mannerisms. Larry Miller, Jr., as another bum, Dopey, possesses great stage energy and a wonderfully theatrical voice but chooses to work against the playwright's rhythms, undercutting his own power.

But these less-than-wonderful moments cause minor ripples and never undo the quality of the playwright or ACME. If you like Neil Simon, the Golden Girls, and TV dinners, stay away, but if you crave some fire in the mind, as well as on-stage, don't miss ACME's Balm in Gilead.

Drama like Wilson's -- and all types of art -- exists on a continuous time line, in which each generation absorbs everything from the past in order to extend the road farther. Shakespeare drew from the ancient Greeks to create his art, while Lanford Wilson came from the loins of Shakespeare. So where does the artist go from here? To help us figure it out, the Miami Light Project -- also initiated five years ago by transplanted Northerners Caren Rabbino and Janine Gross -- begins an ambitious season November 7 at the Colony Theater with Culture Clash, three comic performance artists tackling second-generation Latin conflicts.

And that's just their introduction. Besides up-to-the-second dance and musical creations, the Project will also present unique dramatic monologuists, including Denise Stoklos from Brazil. And for those who want to move the line farther and create performance pieces of their own, the Project conducts workshops, introducing local artists from different disciplines and encouraging homegrown works.

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