Storylines and Conversations Converge in Gritty, Chaotic Gilead
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
Raw urban action will descend on pastoral Gambier this weekend with the drama department’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, directed by Assistant Professor of Drama Ben Viccellio.
Set in New York City, Balm in Gilead, which runs Thursday, Oct. 18 through Saturday, Oct. 20, follows the blooming relationship between newcomer Darlene (Beth Hyland ’13) and pessimistic drug dealer Joe (Harry Hanson ‘13). But, “[The love story is] by no means given the emphasis that it would probably receive in any other play,” Assistant Director Greg Culley ’14 said. “Here, it weaves nicely into this incredible ensemble effort.”
The 34-member cast is part of what drew Viccellio to the play. One of his main goals when choosing the play was to find a way to include as many actors as possible. Interestingly, one of his favorite aspects of the play is also the one that scares him the most.
“I am terrified of the play, as are most theater companies. I am hard-pressed to think of a more well known play by such a well known playwright that is avoided in such a way, because of the sheer size,” Viccellio said. “It was his first play, he kind of threw the kitchen sink at it and said ‘let’s see what theater can do.’ And because of that, it’s a difficult piece.”
While many professional companies tend to shy away from that which scares them, Viccellio does the opposite. His actions connect with the lessons he tries to share with his students.
“I like to do things that scare me,” said Viccellio. “In my classes, I encourage students to tackle what terrifies them, and I always use the phrase ‘go big or go home.’ I wouldn’t have much credibility if I didn’t at least try to walk the walk.”
His students seem to take his lessons to heart. The large scale of the play is part of what made this experience so rewarding for Culley.
“I don’t think people get the opportunity to work on a play like this very often,” said Culley. “Because it has such a large cast it probably wouldn’t be produced professionally … so to do this as a student and have a role with responsibility is really great.”
The cast members also seemed to embrace the difficulties of the play from day one, including challenges presented by Wilson’s writing. Balm in Gilead does not follow a linear storyline.
“This jumps all over the place,” Viccellio said. “So the challenge of this one was to really focus the storytelling so as not to confuse [them].”
But Wilson did not make this an easy thing to achieve. The first scene of the play, for instance, is meant to confuse the audience. Wilson incorporates numerous conversations and storylines that create an obstacle for audience comprehension.
“With 25 people on stage talking at once, the audience kind of has to choose whom they are going to follow. It’s almost like a choose your own adventure-type sequence,” said Viccellio. “Then we start to find the story of Joe and Darlene within this chaos.”
Though the chaos quiets after that first scene, the script does not lose its element of confusion.
“At any given time, there are a minimum of two scripted conversations happening, but also, Wilson is like, ‘I rely on the actors to improvise conversations through the entire show,’” Production Stage Manager Molly McCleary ’14 said. “So at any given time, there are at least five separate conversations happening on stage.”
“He uses really unconventional tools to tell the story,” Culley said. “There’s overlapping dialogue, and overlapping scenes and action.”
It is this creativity that makes the play both moving and memorable.
“Where you might say it’s dark and different, it ends up being bold and inspiring. It’s just so brave for someone to have written this,” Culley said. “I think it’s also so bold that we’re producing it here.”
“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be enveloped in this world,” McCleary said. “And that’s the coolest thing.”