At the outset of Lee Blessing’s Lake Street Extension, a middle-age recovering alcoholic and sometime pederast named Fuller describes the arrival of Salvadoran refugees in his pastor’s churchyard. “People appeared as if by magic,” he says, “their new world empty of everything but snow.” For Fuller, the fresh start this emptiness represents is indeed magical—symbolic of the forgiveness he hopes his recent sobriety and devotion to religious work will bring him. For audiences, it’s a red herring, because if there’s one thing the author doesn’t believe in, it’s fresh starts.
That’s evident from the moment Fuller (Dick Stilwell) stops reminiscing and starts straightening the quarters of the political refugee he’s harboring at his pastor’s instigation. Gregorio (Daniel Luna), a serious young activist from El Salvador, is staying in the basement room once occupied by Fuller’s volatile, aggressive son Trace (Kevin Sturtevant). Trouble is, Trace has unexpectedly shown up for a visit, and isn’t pleased to find his bureau drawers filled with someone else’s clothing.
Trace, it soon becomes clear, is damaged goods. A victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his father, he ran away at 14 and has been kicking around as a leather-jacketed male prostitute for the better part of a decade. Though he comes across as both obnoxious and abusive as he dry-humps his old pillow, dirties bedsheets with his boots, and cuts holes in Gregorio’s clothing, he is also in obvious psychic pain—desperate for the sort of unconflicted affection that his upbringing has made him too wary to accept, even were he somehow to find it.
His father tends to retreat into selectively edited memories when afflicted with desires of a similar nature. Fuller’s recollections of his son’s youth focus on camping trips and classroom-inspired leaf-hunting expeditions. There’s a dark undercurrent even to such benign stories, however. Concluding an account of one especially happy day, he notes with a quickly fading smile, “I never had a drink all night. I never went to his room.”
The presence of an “innocent” stranger in Fuller’s home understandably creates tension, but the author intends for it to do much more than that. Gregorio, too, is hiding a guilty secret—one he can confess only to someone he sees as more despicable than he is. Once he’s been made aware of his host’s predatory sexual proclivities, he has found that someone. But when Gregorio lets loose with a confession that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Nuremberg Trials, setting up an authorial equation best stated as Pederasty U.S. Foreign Policy, the evening spins out of control.
Blessing’s generally more adept at such juxtapositions. In dramatizing a hostage crisis’s human costs in Two Rooms, for instance, he turned political points of view into extensions of personalities. Psycho-partisanism, in fact, is a primary asset of his most political plays. Whether negotiating nuclear disarmament in A Walk in the Woods or arguing plot points with an onstage playwright in Patient A (with which Lake Street Extension plays in repertory at Church Street Theater), his characters are forever sifting through their personal histories for ways of dealing with their political present. That may be why they so often hide and obfuscate like politicians, parceling out information about themselves in tiny dribs and drabs.
Here though, the device seems merely to be a delaying tactic or a cover for playwriting notions that don’t quite add up. In its early stages, when the author is dealing with Trace’s relationship with his father or with his resentment about the foreigner in his room, he’s on stable ground dramatically. But once the focus shifts to the murder of peasants in El Salvador, the evening becomes exasperatingly scattered. Patrons who don’t buy the notion that a man violated by a political system has much in common with a child violated by his father will find themselves wondering why the plot has taken off on this odd tangent. And those who do buy the connection will find themselves wondering why the playwright spends so much time elaborating on details that have relatively little to do with his premise.
Director Paul MacWhorter doesn’t seem to have the answers, though he manages to keep the energy level pretty high throughout. As Trace strokes Fuller’s crotch with a toy gun’s muzzle or sniffs ferally at the “safe haven” rug from his childhood or provokes Gregorio into a just-short-of-lethal display of soldierly skill, actorly adrenaline propels the evening. When the characters exhibit a little humanity, however, the show tends to go slack.
This is most damaging to Stilwell’s Fuller, since the character is trying to eliminate emotional confrontation from his first speech to his last. Still, the actor manages to capture the anguish of a man who knows he can never atone for his past behavior, but must keep going through the motions. In Trace, Sturtevant finds rage and despair, but rarely the seductiveness an approval-seeking prostitute might be expected to exhibit. This is a guy who is presumably practiced in the art of body language, but his manner is unremittingly confrontational, even when he’s bumming a cigarette. Luna’s Gregorio comes across as fiercely controlled, perhaps because that’s the only way to get through the grisly confessional monologue that is the show’s one truly impossible speech.
Freedom Stage’s productions have generally looked best when they’ve been simplest, which places this show at a competitive disadvantage, what with its irrelevant church lectern and stained-glass-ish portraits that appear to be of Prince Valiant, Maid Marian, and a unicorn. And even with those accoutrements, there’s nothing about Elizabeth Jenkins’ set that wouldn’t be vastly improved by placing it 10 feet closer to the audience. The main playing area—a raised platform that is supposed, oddly enough, to be a basement—sits behind an unused forestage, pretty much squandering the intimacy that is this small theater’s chief advantage. When Patient A (which has no scenery of its own) is performed on this same setting, the performers spend nearly all their time on the forestage, venturing up onto the platform only so they can dangle their legs over the front of it. While this partly explains why Patient A is the more effective of the two evenings, the more salient reason is that it’s far more evocatively written.