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The Poison Tree

Bob Gunton and Anne Archer
in The Poison Tree
A cornerstone of American legal rights is the protection against unreasonable governmental search and seizure. Where evidence against a criminal defendant has been illegally obtained, for example, without a proper search warrant, that evidence cannot be used at the trial. This principle is known informally as The Doctrine of The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree. In other words, if the means are tainted, the ends or fruits of those means must likewise be poisonous.

The Poison Tree by Robert Glaudini, directed by Robert Egan for the Mark Taper Forum, uses this doctrine as a springboard for interwoven tales--of a husband and wife who began their relationship illicitly, of the death of the woman's son from abuse of illegal drugs, of the husband's unintended contact with a witness to a criminal case pending before him. As it turns out, the husband and wife consistently invade each other's supposed privacy: He demands to know if she is having an affair with her poet mentor, while she harangues him about the legal intricacies of the pending criminal case. Are rights of privacy out the door between spouses?

She is Rockie Rogers (Anne Archer), whose greatest fear is boredom but who now lives an upper-middle-class life in a tony suburb of San Diego. It appears that Rockie's son died in their home at age 29, presumably of a heroin overdose. It is less certain that Rockie has actually lived the life she describes--as Sartre's muse, attracting Man Ray's notice. Her current infatuation is with a young, hip poet named St. Gerude (Christian Camargo).

Rockie's husband is Ronald Rogers (Bob Gunton), a superior court judge seeking a nomination for a federal judgeship, which will provide him more prestige and permanency. Meanwhile, Ronald presides over a criminal case in which a woman sexually mutilated three surfers, a story as fascinating to the Rogers' dinner guests as it is to the ever-invasive tabloid press.

This setup is intriguing, but the story fails to come to an enlightened or enlightening conclusion. The script seems like several distinct stories patched together, with subtle exposition followed by jarring choices. Why, for example, does Rockie describe in detail her son's death to Ronald, who was there at the time? Also, the play is overloaded by its themes and metaphors: For Rockie, bells represent each important person in her life, and their ringing takes on cumbersome significance. The image of a bull is invoked in various forms at numerous points.

The program notes indicate that the play takes place in the present, yet the Rogers' home has 1980s furnishings (Melrose Avenue chic) and the costumes include 1970s fashions, particularly outfits worn by Rockie (e.g., jeans and peasant blouses). As the play concludes, Rockie rages against the Establishment, led by President Reagan. "It's Clinton, Sweetie," Ronald gently reminds her. So, is his wife living in the past within generally accepted normalcy? Is she mildly psychotic, perhaps the result of the drug abuse she shared with her son? Or did his death destroy her?

The acting in this production seems problematic. Lines flubbed on opening night, primarily by Archer, could have been overlooked; but the forced, declamatory delivery of the cast in general serves no apparent purpose other than to make the play appear farcical in spots. For the most part, the actors remain at one pitch and dynamic: loud, "hyper," and superficial. Insincerity pervades many lines. The style may be intended to mimic stereotypical Southern Californians, but the script takes this concept no further.

In a small role as a family friend, Linda Gehringer avoids declamation and makes sense of her character's affinity for Ronald. The aforementioned Camargo gives St. Gerude a pretentious, almost stilted delivery, albeit he is intense at every step and appropriate to the character of a pseudo literatus. The cast also includes Lola Glaudini (whose acting is lost behind the live snake she wears), Stanley Kamel, Randy Oglesby, and Natsuko Ohama.

David Jenkins' set features a three-dimensional backdrop of hillside homes covered with vines. Under lighting designed by Michael Gilliam, a bit of blue sky darkens with storm clouds or turns ruddy at sunset as the characters fall ever deeper into their misery. The lights within the tiny homes turn on, but it's even more fascinating to watch the theater lights reflect in the miniature windows, a living metaphor for how our actions can affect our neighbors.

Sound design by Jon Gottlieb includes noise from a helicopter that seems to be ferociously circling overhead--so realistically that one looks up at the ceiling to see if something mechanical is indeed hovering there. Karl Fredrik Lundeberg's music consists of percussive, somewhat disquieting jazz fusion to cover scene changes.

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