The Stone Witch Looks for the Fountain of Youth in a Storybook
Dan Lauria stars in Shem Bitterman's play of childhood fantasy at the Westside Theatre.
Never meet your heroes. Abiding that piece of advice has spared many from a world of disappointment, for the figures that loom large in your mind never seem quite as big from up close. Shem Bitterman's The Stone Witch, which opened on March 25 at the Westside Theatre, builds a tale around that premise with a story of a promising young children's author who is sent to the woods to coax a new book out of his long-silent idol. Like most brilliant artists, our veteran author lives in a world that straddles reality and fantasy (rendered with both craft and whimsy by projection designer Brad Peterson, as well as Yael Pardess, who contributes scenic and projection art design that conjures memories of late nights with Maurice Sendak and Lewis Carroll). This binary world is both The Stone Witch's greatest asset and its greatest obstacle. It heightens a relatively mundane story to a level of theatricality, but Bitterman and his director, Steve Zuckerman, don't yet seem to know how to make these two realms theatrically communicate.
Anchoring us in reality is editor Clair Forlorni (not to be confused with Claire Forlani), played by Carolyn McCormick, who does the most she can with her business-shark-in-heels cliché (though she looks fabulous in costume designer Mimi Maxmen's ensembles). Clair has been waiting 12 years to rake in the profits from a new Simon Grindberg masterpiece and has found fresh blood to take up the task. She's recruited a nervous young writer named Peter Chandler (Rupak Ginn), who, despite his talent, has been stuck at his day job for eight years, writing and illustrating only in his meager spare time. Perhaps if he "collaborates" with Simon (who happens to be Peter's greatest artistic inspiration), he can get the old geezer's creative juices flowing again while also earning $10K and paving the way for his own independent career. It's a win for everyone involved.
Of course, these situations are never that simple. Simon (Dan Lauria), as described by Clair, is "a little unusual." Peter quickly finds that "unusual" translates to combative, callous, and cruel — particularly when, upon their first meeting, Simon steals the title of Peter's passion project: The Stone Witch. When Simon is not being actively vindictive, he's lost in a world of his own, allowing little time for work and making the whole endeavor feel like an exercise in futility.
Lauria's performance is the highlight of the production. He walks and talks like a lumbering storybook creature, throwing out mysterious aphorisms, contradicting himself in calculated ways, and zooming off into lands of imagination that we can't see, but are ultimately real to him. The problem, however, is that the play languishes in its depiction of this eccentric genius, only reiterating the same quirks and speeding through the explanations of them. He describes family traumas endured during World War II, which sheds light on his lifelong passion for escaping into fantasy, but the anecdotes don't figure into any other part of the plot. It also remains unclear just how much Simon's fantasies — which include the specter of a young girl named Bella and illusions of an evil Stone Witch — are the work of his overactive creative mind or the delusions of an aging man. This battle with his own imagination is waged simultaneously with his battle against obsolescence — two conflicts that never enhance nor clarify one another.
Peter, whose work now rivals Simon's, is the salt in the wound of his growing irrelevance. Ginn lends his up-and-comer of a character a youthful exuberance that would make any industry veteran cringe, but he doesn't have much beyond that in the way of agency. He either reacts to Simon's emotional whims or to Clair's professional propositions. The Stone Witch spends nearly all of its 90 minutes examining the developing relationship between two individuals who are holed up in a remote cabin for days on end. To put a magnifying glass to just one of them is a missed opportunity.
Simon affectionately calls his young protégé "Peter Peter," but there's more Pan than Pumpkin Eater in both of these men. The theme of eternal youth, and the benefits and handicaps that brings, is full of dramatic possibilities. Perhaps Bitterman just needs to declutter his own imagination before he can delve into someone else's.