...and Tuning In

And now for some socially redeeming theater: Ojibwa Indian poet and playwright Tomson Highway's poignant contemporary exploration of Native American life, The Rez Sisters, at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center.

Once in a while a play comes along that opens a window into another world--then moves through the window and establishes that world all around us. The Rez Sisters, now being produced by Her Acting Group, is such a play. Though the production values are unpolished and the play could use some rewriting to make it flow smoothly (the opening scene is a bit heavy-handed in establishing who's who and why), the raw wonder of the show lies in its caustic humor and its fabulous characters.

The seven women to whom Highway introduces us are very real. Their problems arise from their poverty, their gender and the long history of Native suppression at the hands of the white majority. But there is nothing self-pitying about this work. Fatalistic as it is, it still celebrates individuals struggling with all their strength to make sense of their lives.

The Ojibwa women live on the Wasaychigan Hill Reservation outside of Toronto. All of them dream of winning the pot at the Biggest Bingo Game in the World. Each of them has her reasons for fantasizing about a big score--and the desperate desires of Highway's characters speak volumes about the difficulty of their lives.

Early on, Philomena (a vulnerable and witty Autumn Morning Star) tells a wonderful tale of Bingo Betty, the most awesome bingo player in the history of the rez, whose spirit can still be seen hovering over bingo tables.

So the women go to the tribal council for a loan to make that trip to Toronto. Turned down, they raise the money themselves--washing windows, doing laundry, selling baked goods, entertaining at the local pub, making household repairs. When they finally earn the money they need for the trip, it's a momentous occasion.

Arizona Winters brings emotional weight to her role as the reluctant leader of the bunch, Pelajia Patchnose. Julianna Aragon is brash and funny as Annie, the joker. LisaNadine Ramos charms as the complicated Veronique, while Terra Larkin gives a powerful performance as the tough, brave Emily. Meanwhile, Greg Leading Fox, the token male in the cast, is gorgeous in his two metaphysical roles.

The play is kept alive by wonderful details about reservation life and lots of intimate talk about sex, religion and the daily cares of the women's lives. Highway's story is never for an instant boring but instead varied, often intense and, finally, inspiring.

Githa Sowerby's much acclaimed 1912 drama of an English working-class family, Rutherford and Son, now at Boulder's Chautauqua Community House, also makes for one of the most powerful and unusual evenings of theater this season. For one thing, the Chautauqua Community House makes the perfect realistic setting for the play. For another, Sowerby's complex characters and the trying social issues she explores are as relevant and involving now as they must have been in her own time. (Sowerby wrote only four plays; this is the best of the lot.)

The story concerns a hard-bitten old glass manufacturer whose entire life has been taken up by his business--and by his rise from working to middle class. Everything he does is done to preserve the business for his eldest son, to make a place for him in the world. Yet Rutherford's three adult children fear and resent him, and each of them tries to escape his clutches. But to evade the old man is neither easy nor safe nor even very practical.

Frank Georgianna gives one of the great performances of the year as Rutherford, investing a ruthless old despot with a spark of humor and humanity. And director Georgianna's casting of this Boulder Repertory Company production is super; he's put together a wonderful ensemble to carry Sowerby's excruciating human issues into sharp focus. Valerie Pallai, as the horribly ill-used daughter Janet, is angry, sensitive and smart enough to see who has undone her life for her. And Tom Pavey as John and especially Ed Watkins as Richard, the fragile clergyman, make the perfect distracted and ineffectual sons. Sabra Malkinson makes an impressive hardheaded daughter-in-law, a woman who knows what she wants and is willing to make the necessary bargains with the devil.

What matters most about this play is its wide-eyed understanding of human will made evil by a lack of love: All the suffering described in the play could have been avoided were it not for the iron will of a petty tyrant.

--Mason

The Rez Sisters, through May 12 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

Rutherford and Son, through May 12 at the Chautauqua Community House, Chautauqua Park, Boulder, 449-7258.

 
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