What We're Made Of

But if it seems appropriate to apply the lens of rational perspective when encountering the extreme views of an emotional evocateur, how best to deal with the carefully constructed conundrums that permeate Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon? Now being presented by Germinal Stage Denver, the Obie-winning 1985 drama is, according to director Ed Baierlein, "generally about the triumph of comfort over morality." On the strength of several solid portrayals, Shawn's circuitous, heady and, at times, flat-out boring arguments ultimately prove provocative, if not persuasive.

Penned by the same author who wrote the screenplay for and starred in the offbeat intellectual film My Dinner With Andre, the play concerns an eleven-year-old British girl, Leonora (C. Kelly Douglass)--nicknamed Lemon because of her affinity for brightly colored fruit juices--who spends a great deal of time in her bedroom conjuring up memories of her late adoptive Aunt "Dan" Danielle (Erica Sarzin-Borrillo). Seems that, as a result of her stultifying upbringing by a domineering father interested only in hard financial facts and a spiritually stunted mother who is unable to offer much moral guidance, Lemon has learned to calibrate her ethical compass by listening to the rambling musings of family friend Aunt Dan. Trouble is, Aunt Dan has an uncanny way of convincing her impressionable protege (and, by extension, us) that Henry Kissinger's actions during the Vietnam War were the result of "the habitual humility of a man whose attitude toward life was prayerful." Never mind Kissinger's reputation as a womanizer, argues Aunt Dan: "If he enjoys life, maybe he'll be more inspired to preserve life," she blithely concludes. Before long, Dan convinces Lemon that, among other things, the German government's decision to operate concentration camps was an understandable and necessary choice in a nation intent on "preserving its way of life" and that, if most people were to have regarded Hitler's actions from Hitler's perspective, they'd probably think that the friendly FYhrer wasn't really such a bad guy after all.

Baierlein's intelligent and articulate approach results in several compelling portrayals. In particular, Sarzin-Borrillo's excellent rendering of the endlessly chattering Dan is an enjoyable, multi-faceted amalgam of charming ideologue, trusted confidante and quintessential social misfit. She's nicely complemented by Douglass's gangly, wide-eyed waif, who always seems willing to believe, however tragically, what Dan tells her. A strong supporting cast does much to enliven the talky drama's paper-thin plot.

Still, the play's nettlesome theatrical trickery sometimes makes this near-two-hour production appear to be, as if precisely by design, a no-win situation. (At a recent performance, one theatergoer aptly observed, "It's just monologues coming at you.") For to argue with Shawn or to ignore him is tantamount to acceding to his basic premise that each person will inevitably justify his or her own concept of what is right and wrong. And that a mere thought, when accepted as personal dogma, can make a monster out of an otherwise decent human being. It's a reasonable assumption, one supposes, that's only a problem if you happen to believe as Winston Churchill did when he declared, "We have not journeyed all this way, across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy." As Shawn's disturbing play draws to a close, Lemon's final, revelatory monologue--artfully delivered by a pigtailed Douglass in between sips of bright-green Kool-Aid--serves as a similarly poignant reminder that human beings should indeed be made of sterner stuff.

In the Heart of America, presented by Tracer Productions, through December 19 at the Oedipus Complex, 2120 Welton Street, 303-430-2907. Aunt Dan and Lemon, through December 13 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108.

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