THIS RABBIT IS EARLY FOR ITS DATE
Keliher Walsh’s new play, Year of the Rabbit, treats with respect and compassion the lives of three families wracked by war. The gravity of the text and the production illustrate the sober care the author and her director, James Eckhouse, have taken in telling this harrowing story. But given the complicated issues it raises and the intricate character arcs it describes, the play would work better if it were twice as long and (to assist the audience in tolerating so much grief) at least occasionally funny.
In a smart, literate script, Ms. Walsh considers the intersection of a Vietnamese mother and child (Elyse Dinh as the child; the mother is only referenced), a working-class black American father and daughter, both military service members (Meshach Taylor and Ashanti Brown, respectively), and an officer-class white American family (Peter Mackenzie as the father, Ms. Walsh as the mother, and Will McFadden as the Marine pilot son). Various members of these families meet, love, and lose one another to the ravages of a vicious world, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the United States, over a period of about forty years. An indictment of impersonality quavers in the low notes of this cry for amity; mostly the inhumanity is ascribed to the enforced brutality of war, but it spills over into civilian life, too, dividing strangers and family alike.
The canvas upon which Ms. Walsh paints, therefore, is big enough for an epic, but her tendencies are mostly minimalist. Given Mr. Eckhouse’s heavy incorporation of video projection (Hana S. Kim, who also designed the versatile set), sound (complex work by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski), and lights (subtle and bombastic effects by Pablo Santiago), the director would seem to want to fill the canvas. It’s an odd stylistic mixture resulting in a few long, sweeping, poetic scenes and images, peppered by many small, contained sketches that leave a lot of bare space within the frame. It’s an interesting combination for awhile, but ultimately it’s the writer’s job to flesh out characters and stories in a satisfying or at least sufficient manner. Several very nice moments that in a more detailed landscape would ring with power, here land with less than half their potential impact because there are not enough hills and valleys from which to hear them echo.
While Ms. Walsh’s dialogue and dramatic structure are more or less sound, she asks the audience to do a great deal of her storytelling for her. When, for instance, we are given to understand that three of your major characters are drug addicts, and that this trait in at least two cases results in tragedy, either you must tell us why, in action that compels as it explicates, or we must be willing to take your word for it that the characters have their reasons. The play is marked by a few choices that disallow us from trusting the narrative so much: one main character has her story told in excruciating detail, but all in monologue until the story is overtaken by other less active characters, after which she goes into a spiral we are told about but don’t really get to see except in a single disappointing moment. This smacks a little of abandonment, both of the character and of the audience. The unrelenting sharp-tongued seriousness of mood also becomes rather a lot to take after a time; but this is a related issue in that some of the missing scenes could provide levity.
As ever at this theater, the cast is uniformly excellent, a mix of company members and outside hires. The production too is up to the usual EST/LA standards of doing much with little. And this writer’s capacity to create good scenes is not in question; the question is whether she’ll go ahead and develop this ninety minutes (ten or fifteen of which are brilliantly written, the rest perfectly fine) into a hard-nosed three hours of blood, sweat, and tears. If she has a multi-generational family saga to tell inside of an anti-war polemic, I hope she goes ahead and tells it until it’s fully told.
photos by Betsy Newman
Year of the Rabbit
Ensemble Studio Theatre / LA at Atwater Theatre Village in Glendale
scheduled to end on October 28, 2012
for tickets, call (323) 644-1929 or visit http://www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org