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The Wake

Lisa Kron's multi-layered play about a political activist is well-acted but far too long and repetitive.

By Los Angeles
Carson Elrod, Heidi Schreck, Andrea Frankle
and Danielle Skraastad in The Wake
(© Craig Schwartz)
Carson Elrod, Heidi Schreck, Andrea Frankle
and Danielle Skraastad in The Wake
(© Craig Schwartz)
Lisa Kron's multi-layered new play, The Wake, now premiering at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (before moving on in May to Berkeley Repertory Theatre), concerns "blind spots" in our lives -- things that we miss seeing because they are truly invisible to us or because we're distracted by something else -- and how we live with the wake they leave behind.

Sadly, though, Kron and director Leigh Silverman seem to have some blind spots of their own. The Wake runs close to three hours (including intermission) and far too much of that time is spent rambling over the same points so often that numbness sets in and meaning is lost.

Ellen (Heidi Schreck) is a constantly jabbering activist and wannabe writer so invested in the political process that she compulsively watches CNN for the latest news bulletins about the contested presidential election of 2000 during Thanksgiving dinner. Her broadminded bent is showcased here, and throughout the show, by her family of choice: her likeable live-in lover, Danny (Carson Elrod); Danny's lesbian sister, Kayla (Andrea Frankle) and her comical but harder-edged wife, Laurie (Danielle Skraastad); and Ellen's morose friend, Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), a humanitarian aid worker who grew up in poverty and abuse and is now just back from Africa to attend her mother's funeral.

Themes of family and marriage and the definitions of each also carry weight in this politically-oriented story, which covers a timespan from November 2000 to early 2007. These issues are heightened further with the appearances of Amy (Emily Donahoe), an old friend who strikes up a romance with Ellen, and Tessa (Miriam F. Glover), Judy's mixed-race niece whose more conservative streak sets off some minor fireworks and helps set the stage for changes to come.

The wearisome length of the show is due in large part to Ellen's inability to let any pinpoint of potential conflict go by without lengthy commentary. Moreover, because there are several points where Ellen steps out of the action to directly address the audience about what's happening, the whole thing begins to take on the tone of a playwright just in love with hearing herself talk.

Fortunately, Silverman elicits fine performances from her cast, with O'Connell as a particular standout. The character of Judy is very different from the rest in her background, perspectives, and life experiences, as well as her hilariously sardonic sensibilities, and O'Connell delivers the whole package with an enviable dry easiness. A confrontation between Judy and Ellen in Act II is one of the highlights of the show, but it's so late in the game by then that much of their important discussion goes by unabsorbed.

Scenic designer David Korins offers a nicely lived-in tenement apartment in the East Village, complete with outside fire escape for smoking and intimate conversations. Alexander V. Nichols created both the workable lighting design as well as the projections of headline news stories, including Al Gore's 2000 concession speech and assorted reports about 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Strangely low sound levels from sound designer Cricket S. Myers, however, made some of the dialogue -- and plot points -- often hard to hear.


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