Mother of Confusion

Alcoholism, journalism, communism, racism, Christian fundamentalism, tell-all autobiographies and the uses and abuses of plant food all surface as topics of debate in Sarah Fisher Lowe's When the Wood Is Green, a world-premiere play that comprises Program Two of the Colorado Women Playwrights' Festival. As if all of those subjects weren't enough for an audience to deal with, two of the central characters (one of whom has a heart condition) periodically--and haphazardly--lock horns over their fractured mother-daughter relationship.

But there's more. As the two-hour drama progresses, we learn that a hog's head has been dumped on the front lawn of the Colorado farmhouse that Ruth (Jackie Elio) shares with her daughter, Constance Bough (Whitney Marie Nuchols). Seems that Mama, a retired journalist, has been writing nasty magazine articles about the local yokels and their pig-raising ways. In addition, a blustery physician, Dr. Warden (Dan Keenan), mentions the plight of the Chiapas Indians while insisting (at least twice in the space of a few seconds) that there's "more going on in this town than meets the eye." Just what he's alluding to is never made evident. And by the time the dutiful Constance raises the issue of abortion by trekking to Denver to hear Billy Graham speak (while Mama, who tags along on the bus ride and punches out Doc Warden's wife, makes her own statement about prevailing social concerns by shoplifting from Lord & Taylor), it's difficult to focus on any single idea or theme.

Part of the problem with the playwright's scattershot approach is that each mini-discussion portends more than it ultimately delivers. More important, the issues Lowe touches on take on independent lives of their own and never become fuel for the underlying conflict that supposedly exists between Ruth and Constance. Instead of serving to illuminate the differences between the two--Ruth's a hard-boiled, hard-drinking sort who's contemptuous of Constance's touchy-feely fundamentalist credo--each reference to a particular social problem becomes fodder for aimless conversation.

There's not much point, for instance, in listening to Ruth trade shots with Marteen DuCiel (Adrienne Martin-Fulwood), Constance's hired nurse, about oppression and racism when theatergoers are trying to get a handle on why a streetwise (she's from St. Louis) African-American atheist like Marteen would (a) turn her back on a knife-wielding Constance barely a minute after meeting her; (b) walk offstage for a split second and return singing the praises of the spare room she'll be living in for the foreseeable future; or (c) barely respond when a Bible-thumping Constance observes, "I think the best nurses are black, don't you?" (Although a few moments later, when Constance mentions something about a fungicide, Marteen takes it as an oblique racist remark.) In fact, spectators spend most of their time witnessing one character offer up a volley that's ripe for return--or that cries out to be spiked during a spirited exchange--only to watch the comment vanish in trite and inconsequential small talk. When it finally becomes apparent that Ruth and Constance have some serious bridge-building to do before either of them is ready to meet her Maker (the exact causes for their familial divide elude us for much of the evening), their play-ending reconciliation lacks power and depth. Despite the yeoman efforts of director James O'Leary and his enthusiastic cast, Lowe's play merely beckons with the promise of a deeper story that has yet to take root.


When the Wood Is Green, Program Two of the 1999 Colorado Women Playwrights' Festival, presented by Industrial Arts Theatre through June 20 at the Denver Civic Theater, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-595-3821.

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Jim Lillie

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