In New Theatre's nearly flawless production of Terrence McNally's recent off-Broadway hit, A Perfect Ganesh, actor extraordinaire Bill Yule portrays Lord Ganesha, Hindu God of Happiness, both hideous (with his elephant's head) and splendid (with his good humor). "I am in your kiss and in your cancer," he says. "I am the Lord of Obstacles." At the very end of the play he stands in the background of a pivotal scene between two long-time friends, women who are experiencing both limitless love and intense grief. He leans forward toward the audience, puts his finger to his lips, and whispers, "Ssh." The lights go to black, and there are several moments of stunned silence before the audience can adequately recover and enthusiastically applaud the show.
The simple instruction of that last line is essential to a keen understanding of the play. "Ssh" means: Don't analyze this story using your Western values. Don't judge whether this is a happy or sad ending. Don't endlessly talk, converse, dissect, and debate the piece. Instead, just be. Live in the moment, enjoy, feel, allow your soul to grow by virtue of any challenge it meets on life's rocky road.
To people unfamiliar with Eastern teaching and thinking, A Perfect Ganesh will be merely entertaining and poignant, an unusual and witty play about two older women who journey to India to find the answer to that perpetual query: Why? But for those who can appreciate the clarity of Hindu principles, the play is a work of genius.
At the start of the dramatic action, Katharyn Brynne, the more tormented of the play's two affluent Connecticut housewives, is ready to be cleansed and somehow changed via a vacation in India. For years Katharyn and her husband, George, have traveled to various Caribbean islands with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Civil. But this year is different. Katharyn, an outwardly jovial woman, needs to find peace. She convinces the stuffy and arch Margaret Civil to join her on a trip to India, a destination their husbands have totally rejected. Three years earlier Katharyn's AIDS-infected son was beaten to death by a gang of inner-city brutes, and died in the hospital before she had the chance to reconcile her feelings about his gay lifestyle and tell him that she loved him. This double yoke of guilt and loss is crushing both her heart and soul.
On the other hand, Mrs. Civil -- her name is no accident -- tightly tucks away any internal pain from public view. She, too, has lost a son, many years ago, when her angelic toddler, Gabriel, pulled away from her and ended up under the wheels of a New York City bus. But Katharyn doesn't know this about Mrs. Civil, nor does she know that her companion suspects she has breast cancer. Margaret touches the ever-increasing lump in private, unable to trust or love another person enough to let him or her share her pain and fear. Although Mrs. Civil pretends to detest the thought of going to germ-ridden, poverty-stricken India, she tags along to find a miracle of her own.
The visit, as the narrator-God Ganesha (sometimes also called Ganesh) explains, becomes not a vacation for the two women, but rather a trip. A vacation ends when the person returns, Ganesha says, whereas the ramifications of a trip last forever. Margaret and Katharyn encounter teeming hordes of homeless people, kindly tourists from Japan, crafty waiters, affectionate children, burning bodies, dead animals, and babies floating in the Ganges, as well as visions of their own private demons. "Be careful of India," warns a local tour guide, "you may find yourself here."
McNally -- author of such past gems as Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and The Lisbon Traviata -- does not structure this play in a traditional, Western manner, presenting the plot in linear fashion. Instead, he employs the traditions of kathakali, a form of dance-drama popular in South India. A series of encounters, flashbacks, and myths delicately unfold the story line, allowing the play to blossom like a flower from the inside out in several directions.
A Perfect Ganesh is to other contemporary plays what Christian fundamentalism is to Hinduism. Complete and irreconcilable duality exist at the core of fundamental Christianity: God is good, Satan is bad. But Hinduism points up how such apparent opposites can easily blend together. The Lord of Obstacles is also the Lord of Happiness. He wears bright colors and offers kind guidance, but also smiles, almost callously, at tragic events. Ganesha says, "Opposites can live together."
McNally's concept is more than well served by New Theatre's intelligent production. The set is a sparkling silk backdrop that changes constantly and marvelously by virtue of expert lighting design by Mikuni Ohmae. Atmospheric music delicately underscores each mood and scene. Marta Lopez's lovely costumes and an amazing Ganesh mask by Hal Hoffman hypnotize the eyes.
Director Rafael de Acha easily has topped the quality of last year's world-premiere production in New York City. Without a doubt, this represents his most brilliant work. Through the lights, sounds, music, costuming, and movement, de Acha takes you to India, deep within the mystery of various locales, stirring your imagination to conjure up glorious and terrible visions.
In the role of Ganesha (as well as a tour guide, waiter, and small child, among others), Bill Yule surpasses his previously fine work, performing with a precision and power nothing short of divine. Remarkably, he makes a Hindu God come to life. The rest of the cast is adequate, but they could be better if they would stop emoting, stop trying to "act." Edna Schwab, as Katharyn, gives an honest performance but allows herself to fall into the artificial rhythms of Pedar McCormack (in various male roles) and Adriana Keathley (Mrs. Civil). Neither McCormack nor Keathley destroy the production; they simply do not trust their instincts, and instead resort to stagy line readings and gestures. The problem is so simple to fix that I'm sure de Acha will make the necessary adjustments before the run is finished. Once corrected this production will be as perfect as Lord Ganesha.
Terrence McNally manages to reach the grandest goals of art within two brisk hours. He tells an exciting story, conveys wisdom, builds believable characters, and at the same time deals with such social issues as AIDS, motherhood, racism, and female aging. How does he do it? Don't ask. Just go to New Theatre and experience the trip. Or as Ganesha would advise, "Ssh.