Inside a moral vacuum is a bad place to be: Not only is it fraught with violence and suffering, it's boring, too. But somehow that boredom is conveyed without boring the audience in The Lida Project's consuming production of Edward Bond's notorious urban horror story Saved.
It all takes place in working-class south London in 1965. Len is obsessed with Pam, who is obsessed with Fred. Len lives with Pam and her parents, Mary and Harry; she works hard and pays the rent. Pam has a baby, and though we never really know if it's Fred's or Len's, Len seems to have an attachment to the child. He won't leave, however hard Pam tries to make him. Meanwhile, Fred rejects Pam as she has rejected Len--and one night in a fit of jealous anger, Pam leaves the baby in its pram with Fred and runs off.
Here Bond's tale takes a turn for the perverse. Fred's buddies begin to torture the baby and finally goad Fred into throwing rocks at it. They all savagely pelt the pram until the baby dies--as Len watches from a distance, too scared or too fascinated to intervene. Fred goes to jail without revealing his buddies' involvement in the murder, and Pam writes to him relentlessly, even though he has killed her baby. Pam, now back at home, fights continually with Len, while Mary almost succeeds in seducing the young man, then torments her husband in her rage and frustration.
Nothing in Bond's story is resolved except by inertia. Love is out of the question, and communication and self-knowledge never so much as peek through the haze of selfishness and inanity in these empty lives.
At first the play does indeed seem morally pointless and cynical beyond hope. And yet, while there may not be a profound vision here, there is a relentless desire to probe the dark corners of the human condition--the better to clean them out and heal them. Bond's moral sense ultimately does permeate the work, which is why it has stood the test of time.
When the play was written in 1965, it so outraged the critics and the British government's censorship bureau that the playwright and the theater company that presented it were prosecuted for violating obscenity laws. The resulting trial became the test case for overthrowing government censorship of Britain's major art form, the theater. And while today it may be easy to scoff at the British critics who misunderstood Bond's motives, give them credit for their outrage: They were less inured to violence in 1965 than we are now.
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But to depict evil is not necessarily to advocate it. And Bond is helped along with his consciousness-raising by the excellent local director Chip Walton and a crack cast of (mostly) young actors who hold nothing back. Gene Gillette moves convincingly through the action as a dull-witted Len who nonetheless is as anguished as an ox in harness. Emily Newman Walton's intriguingly ferocious Pam is all frantic mood swings and stupid desire, while David Russell's Fred is a monster in human form--a man utterly free of conscience. Julianna Bellinger gives a terrific performance as the mean-spirited Mary, and Jim Hubbard etches a fine portrait of ineptitude as Pam's father.
And the street thugs here--Geoffe Kent, Nik Furmansky, Johnny Stange and Kevin Stephens--create intense images, exposing the worst dregs of the male mind. This is, for the most part, excellent ensemble work, although once in a while one thug or another needs to tone down a bit and make the evil more internal than external.
Bond never preaches about the debilitating effects of violence--he tells it like it is. And 21 years later, it is a message that still hits home with sickening force. How can we possibly process the gruesome data that is coming out of Bosnia now? The unspeakable evil of Chinese orphanages? Or the indifference of some Americans to their own suffering children? One of the obligations of the artist is to shake up complacency and stimulate conscience. And though none of his characters can be saved, Bond does succeed--by bringing the world home to our own doorstep and rubbing our noses in it.
Saved, through March 23 at The Lida Project, 3601 Blake Street, 293-9193.