A good journey makes a heroic tale--especially when the protagonist ultimately arrives at new insight. Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh, though flawed as drama by its own heady ambitions, is one such quest story. And the sterling production at Theatre on Broadway illuminates an already bright play with layers of sensitivity and even wisdom.
As the story opens, the lights come up behind the scrim of director/designer Steven Tangedal's excellent set. There sits the golden god Ganesha like a statue. It takes a moment to notice that he is breathing. His elephant head and great round belly give him a somewhat comic expression (at least to Western eyes), and indeed, he is a good and jolly god who will comment on the action from time to time, taking on the roles of various characters. His presence is a metaphor meant to remind us that the divine spark may be present in any stranger or loved one. But he's also there to poke a little fun at human seriousness, a narrator whose own story weaves through the play until we understand him--at last--as the Hindu god who removes obstacles.
Middle-aged and aching, best friends Margaret and Katherine take a two-week trip to India looking for some relief from their private miseries. Margaret appears to be bossy and intolerant, Katherine enthusiastic and lovable. But surface appearances give way during the course of the play, and the complexity of these two souls begins to shine through. Margaret is not hateful, though she assumes a cantankerous demeanor to mask her fears and sorrows. And Katherine struggles with her own prejudices and guilt despite an amiable facade and a kindly heart. We are meant to feel many things about these two women--and to recognize in them the reluctance to confront our own faults and prejudices.
When the two arrive in India, Katherine meets a young man who resembles her dead son Walter. In fact, she meets one young man after another who resembles her dead gay son; because she can't let go of him, she sees him everywhere. He was murdered by a gang of youths, but his ghost returns to indict the real culprit--intolerance. Throughout the play, Katherine will question her own culpability. And as we learn, not even the ghost is free of blame.
Ganesh leaps around in time, moving from one nebulous Indian environment to another and even toggling between the human and the god's-eye-view of the two travelers: This India is definitely a landscape of the mind. But what matters through it all is that these two women build a kind of communion together that rings true. Katherine's relationship to Harry, one of the young men who resembles her son, is another humane alliance. The fact that she's trying to make up for her lack of charity toward her lost son makes the connection they achieve all the more poignant.
Playwright McNally, however, is so issue-oriented that he can't resist piling those issues on. So not only does he deal with two friends in need of healing for their separate sorrows, he also takes on AIDS, racial prejudice, American affluence versus Indian poverty, class conflict, breast cancer, gender antagonism and adultery. If it seems like too much for one play to bear, it probably is.
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And yet it's clear that McNally has his reasons for all of this sociopolitical overload: He sees all the frailties of the flesh as one big problem in need of a solution. These women suffer terribly. But McNally has a context to put that suffering in--the wide world of anguish that humankind must address and never does.
Martha Greenberg is just right as Margaret--she wears classy arrogance like a glove. And when she peels that glove back a little, we see not only the grief that has hardened her life, but also a very vulnerable human being tormented by failure. Stephen Maestas gives a funny, ingenious performance as Ganesh, decked out in a brilliant gold-lame costume that's an engineering wonder as well as a sensuous delight to behold. Nicholas Sugar is superb as the show's Everyman; he's as hilarious as a stereotypical Indian hotel manager as he is sensitive in the role of young Harry.
But this journey belongs mostly to Katherine, and Deborah Persoff's radiant performance lends the play layers of truth and life that may not actually have been put there by McNally's script. Her Katherine is so sweet, nasty and tragic, so full at once of the milk of human kindness and the bile of human prejudice, that she is the one fully fizzing character in the allegory. We love her because she is so good, and we recognize ourselves in her because she is so complicated.
If we didn't love Katherine, the play would never transcend its very real limitations. But we do love her. And so the communion between the women rings true--and the trip they take together matters, because greater kindness and fuller understanding is its end.