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Dissonance provides the balm in 'Gilead'

Confession time: Dissonance makes me squirm. I am old school; I am drawn to harmony in folk music, The Great American Songbook and hummable Broadway hits; to the Impressionists’ pastoral scenes; to Opera stoppers; to ethos we middle-classers can grasp in our theater.

In mathematical terms, this is 1+1 = 2. But some of my best friends -- and several family members -- are mathematicians for whom there is an infinite "space" between what we called integers in math classes. You know, 1,2,3,4, etc., which makes absolute sums irrelevant. So, when I think about Mahler, Picasso, Coltrane, Mamet, they all coalesce under my heading of Dissonance. Their work, to me, introduces an infinite space between the familiar and the unknowable, jumping from the area of the brain that responds emotionally, to the area that requires interpretation and analysis.

Upon exiting the excellent local production “Balm In Gilead,” I was asked if I "enjoyed" it.  My friendly knee-jerk response was that "enjoy" was an odd word for this play. Written in the 1960s by Lanford Wilson, it is a dissonant classic. Everyone who works in theater knows it.  It was premiered by the respected, and often revered, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater.

The plot plops the audience down amid 48 hours with a collection of dysfunctional, drug centric, lonely night people hanging out in a 24/7 coffee shop in New York City’s seedy upper Broadway. The human pathos at times is staggering. If, like me, you are sometimes prone to thinking about life in vaguely fatalistic terms, I don’t recommend you go to a bar by yourself after seeing this play.

However, if you want to experience theater that offers some of the finest young actors New Orleans has to offer, delivering exceptionally excellent individual performances, don’t miss “Balm in Gilead” at NOCCA this closing weekend. The characters talk around rather than to one another, but this makes for a unique dissonant experience, like an atonal spoken-word symphony played out by talented thespians.

These actors have to be able to stay in their own chaotic individual zone, regardless of the collective chaos going on around them. This is not a simple task, because it often denies them the ability to play off one another. What they accomplish goes way beyond staying in character.

Off-putting? I observed both scowls and unabashed weeping, so obviously it affects different people differently. It was a thing of dark beauty. It is something you should see.

Truly, I urge you to see this play. Then, find me. We’ll have a drink…together.

Directed by the equally talented, Mark Routhier, “Balm in Gilead” is collaboration between two young producing groups, The NOLA Project and Cripple Creek. It is in the Nims Black Box at NOCCA with shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Barbara Motley writes about the theater scene in New Orleans for NolaVie.