Catherine, a widow living in a wealthy suburb of Austin, Texas, during the presidency of George W. Bush, hires Arturo from a group of unemployed men gathered at a street corner to clean up her overgrown garden. She is lonely, neurotic, angry, shunned by neighbors who gossip about the reasons for the death of her professor husband. Arturo turns out to be a Cuban exile and also a serious novelist whose work was censored because it made fun of Fidel Castro.
You know from the start that the garden in By the Waters of Babylon, now at the Edge Theater, has to be symbolic. It’s overgrown with weeds that hide things both precious and troublesome: a battered old doll, an overgrown bench; also mint, wild roses and honeysuckle. Catherine worries about snakes and spiders. You assume that Arturo will swiftly clear these weeds away, and he does. You also assume immediately that Catherine and Arturo will end up in bed together, and of course they do.
But author Robert Shenkkan, who won a Pulitzer for The Kentucky Cycle and whose thoughtful All the Way, a play about Lyndon Baines Johnson, was presented recently at the Denver Center, has managed to avoid cliché, along with all resemblance to Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper Mellors in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or to the highborn-lowborn matches in Downton Abbey. Arturo isn’t just a muscled, silent man of the soil but a vivid character, and although Catherine, with her quivering vulnerability and sharp, defensive tongue, is a little reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams heroine, she ends up being an original, too.
The dialogue in this gentle, lyrical play is intelligent and self-aware, with a poeticism that often works magic. But the verbal embroidery can also feel too knotted and thick, the symbolism too ubiquitous. It’s not just the garden; it often seems as if every action, prop and comment carries symbolic weight, whether it’s Arturo’s love of dance and music or his prolonged lesson in how to make a mojito and whether you describe the mint leaves as “gently crushed,” as he does, or “muddled,” as Catherine laughingly corrects him. What does that doll mean? Well, there’s a lost child coming up, as well as a child who almost drowned and was called back to life by her mother’s singing. Arturo speaks of santeria and its gods, and names arise that we in Denver know well from the productions of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s allegorical plays at Curious Theatre over the past couple of years: Ogun, Elegua, Oya.
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I like the fact that Arturo loves and longs for his lost country, and even harbors ambivalence about the hated Castro revolution; while it plunged Cuba into crisis and harmed artists like himself, he says, it also increased literacy and lifted the population out of grinding poverty. (But then, it’s possible that he’s repeating propaganda he half loathes and half believes.) The play’s title comes from a psalm: “By the waters of Babylon...we wept when we remembered Zion,” and in some sense, the entire play is a lament for a lost home — Arturo’s Cuba, and the place of warmth, humanity and safety that Catherine constantly searches for.
The structure is a little pat. Toward the end of the first act, Arturo’s grief bursts through in a long monologue, and in act two, Catherine’s secrets do the same in an even longer one. Except now there’s a gun and some high drama involved. The first act is generally more interesting than the second, perhaps because Arturo’s predicament is new to most of us, and although domestic violence remains a horrific reality, it’s so widely discussed and depicted that Catherine’s story sounds too familiar.
Yet I find this play has stayed with me in the days since I saw it opening weekend — partly because the writing is often so rich and musical and the moments of humor so charming, but primarily because of the acting and Warren Sherrill’s direction. Completely immersed in their roles, working beautifully together, Patty Ionoff and Kent Randell give wonderfully expressive, generous-hearted performances — and you end up caring deeply about their characters. And then there’s Sherrill, co-founder of the now-shuttered Paragon Theater, who was recently named associate director at the Edge. It’s a terrific move on the part of artistic director Rick Yaconis. Sherrill brings subtlety and intelligence to everything he touches, and you intuit his hand in the charged, vibrating silences that make By the Waters of Babylon more than the sum of its parts.
By the Waters of Babylon, presented by the Edge Theater Company through July 3, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.