Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The innocent and young college kid Gabe finds himself the center of attention (in both sexual and platonic forms) of his philosophical professor John, John's wife Muriel, John's friend Walter, and Walter's fiancée Lizzie. The intersection of these individuals and the highly intelligent, inquisitive, innocent and religiously focused Gabe, "a teenage hustler who spouts the Bible" as Walter paints him, makes for an explosive story, especially when the relationships start to unravel and the truths are revealed.
But is this foursome exploiting Gabe in order to fulfill their own sexual or emotional needs or is Gabe using them? Is Gabe really a homeless youth living in the garden paradise he has created in Central Parkhis modern day version of Gethsemaneor a skilled con artist using everyone he meets for his own advantage? And what about the Christ-like persona that Gabe takes on after he devours a bible borrowed from John's library? Is he Christ reborn or just a crazy religiously obsessed kid?
Allen's dialogue is filled with a sharp and biting sense of the current status of sex and marriage where the "free love" mantra of the sexual revolution has basically become "it's all about my needs." Allen uses overlapping scenes and dialogue, with the very end of one scene flowing into the next and one character briefly speaking to characters in both scenes, which proves to be an excellent way to show the interconnectivity among all of the characters in the play. While his characters and dialogue are sharp, Allen's play isn't faultless. The denouement is a bit too tidy in how comfortable the characters are with each other once the facts come out, and the final scene also leaves much up to your interpretation of just who Gabe is. Audiences may leave feeling that there are a few questions left unanswered. But, even with those shortcomings, it is still an intriguing and stimulating play.
Director Damon Dering does very good work here. He doesn't rush the proceedings, letting Allen's dialogue and topics proceed with an appropriate ebb and flow. His staging of the final two scenes creates some jaw dropping stage imagery that evokes both well-known religious scenes and a tenderness amongst his actors.
As Gabe, Cole Brackney is radiant. He instills this young man with many alternating personas. He is energetic yet calm, elusive and enigmatic, and also has a direct, simple and clear purity. He is angelic in the way he speaks and interacts with those around him. Gabe claims that he wanted to find something better than what he had and in Brackney's clear portrayal we feel for this inquisitive man who is passionately searching for individuals to connect to and his place in the world.
The remaining cast members all paint clear and convincing portrayals of the four individuals who find Gabe as the catalyst for their actions. As John, Phillip Arran is direct and fatherly to the young boy, prepared to give him guidance and advice in return for giving him what he desires, while Shari Watts is fiery as Muriel, a woman with a deep desire to "feel something" who thinks that Gabe is the way for her to connect with what she is missing in her life. Charles Orme makes Walter appropriately arrogant, yet underneath there is a burning desire to help the boy, and Lauren Bishop infuses Lizzie with tenderness and care.
Dering and Brett Aiken's multi-level set works efficiently for the four main locations with the use of garden lattices and a beautiful and whimsical painted stage floor by Baron Dixon that resembles a walkway in a garden. Clare Burnett's lighting provides subtle shifts in tone and Dering's costumes evoke the various character's professions expertly.
While In the Garden may not provide all of the answers to the many questions it provokes, it is offbeat and interesting with characters who make you want to find out more about them. Featuring a superb performance from Cole Brackney as Gabe, a fine supporting cast, and assured direction, Nearly Naked Theatre's production proves to be thought provoking, humorous, and an intelligent discussion on the never tiresome topics of sex and religion.
In the Garden runs through April 15th, 2017, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org.
Written by Norman Allen