SHELTER-SKELTER

Everyone on earth has a purpose, homeless Betty declares, and hers is to act as a mirror--the one you can't get away from when you leave the bathroom. In her is reflected the whole human condition, and playwright Joe Turner Cantu wants us to gaze long and hard into that mirror in his poignant drama about homelessness, Rock and Betty Dance. The trouble is, Cantu can't resist piling on the social ills, as if he had to squeeze every sociopolitical evil into a single two-act play.

Editorial commentary as drama can quickly grow tiresome. But fortunately for us, the Ad Hoc Theatre production mitigates the more ham-fisted elements of Cantu's play with sophisticated acting and direction. It is finally, to borrow a term from the play, an "uplifting" experience, as well as an eye-opening take on recent American history.

In Cantu's tale, middle-aged Betty Dance sits on "her" bench outside the public library every day, reading voraciously. Books are her calling, and she considers herself a scholar--who sleeps each night in an empty room behind the library. Betty's world is peaceful until Rock, a disturbed, illiterate Vietnam vet, descends with a bang. He's noisy and he's all over the place, and though she tries to get rid of him, he inspires compassion in her. She invites him to dinner at the homeless shelter and comforts him through one of his vacant spells.

Betty teaches Rock to read and they eventually fall in love, in the process opening up to each other about how they ended up where they are. It's a heavy emotional load--his guilt and anguish over events in the war, her husband's desertion and child's death. Betty appears to have made a conscious choice to live on the street--to spend all her time reading rather than to waste any of it working. Rock, meanwhile, has been cast out because the mentally ill have nowhere to go. As drug pushers move into the neighborhood, the lovers decide to do something about it, and the tragedy that follows is inevitable.

Through it all, Rock and Betty discuss their plight with believable intelligence and flashes of genuine insight--whenever Cantu can restrain himself from preaching. Katharine Guthrie gives a sensitive reading of Betty; her New York accent works most of the time, and she keeps a wide range of emotions hovering near the surface. The most revealing and most affecting moment of the play is Betty's description of her child's death. It's a tough scene, fraught with dangers for an actress, but Guthrie keeps her passion in careful check, and the discipline pays off.

John Arp's amazing performance moves Rock from madness to a vestige of mental health, from remorse to the clarity of hope. Steering through a torrent of emotions, Arp brings Rock safely to harbor in his love for Betty. But even in the relative peace love confers, Arp stirs an undercurrent of past suffering, keeping his character poised at the brink. These people are worthy of cherishing each other and of being cherished by us.

It's a pity Cantu couldn't have expressed his moral vision by showing instead of telling. One of the great challenges of political art is to speak to those who aren't yet converted and to reach them where they live. Still, the playwright's admirable sentiments do disturb certain complacencies--and that's good, even if it's not enough.

 
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