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Between the living and the dead

'Vesuvius' needs stronger humanity


May 9, 2005

The Man (Tony Ward) and the Woman (Natacha Roi) take cover during an earthquake in the world premiere of "Vesuvius," an ambitious and often poetic play now at the South Coast Repertory Theatre.
COSTA MESA – In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently, wiping the city of Pompeii from the Italian countryside. For centuries, the city's exact location was unknown; its fate was illuminated principally through the efforts of Pliny the Younger, who observed events from a safe distance and recorded his impressions (along with eyewitness accounts of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder) in a pair of letters to the Roman historian and writer Tacitus.

That cataclysmic upheaval serves many functions in "Vesuvius," Lucinda Coxon's poetic, ambitious yet unrealized play, now in its world premiere on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory Theatre.


7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 15; Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; $27 to $56; (714) 708-5555;

The action unfolds mainly in Naples, near the ruined city, and the principal characters (known only as the Man and the Woman) share an interest in the volcano's ancient history. More problematically, the volcano becomes the play's central and rather overbearing metaphor for the characters' personal grief and for the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The connection between past and present upheavals is established in an introductory lecture/slide show given by the Woman (Natacha Roi), a British forensic anthropologist who (we eventually learn) has earned a considerable reputation for her work uncovering the grisly secrets of burial sites and mass graves around the world.

The inhabitants of ancient Pompeii, she notes, chose to settle on a "remarkably hostile bit of earth" that sought to "buck them off." Of course, "we too live cheek by jowl with disaster," she says, and the note of grief that creeps into Roi's voice feels both personal and communal, promising a moody, provocative meditation on past events and present realities.

The action soon switches to Naples, where the Woman has gone on a foundation-sponsored academic retreat. She is weary of her emotionally taxing work, and seeks peace and solitude, so she isn't pleased to find the Man (Tony Ward), a geologist from New Zealand, also living in the foundation's quarters.

Roi's emotionally cut-off Woman is tormented by the dead – the people she tries to "give an identity" through her forensic work, and also her brother, whose demise was a tragic consequence of Down syndrome. Through a series of scenes with her doctor (David Paul Francis) and her brother's friend, the Girl (Jennifer Hinds), she attempts to name her fears and put them to rest.

Ward's Man comes to Naples with a ghost of his own – he is struggling to complete a popular book about volcanos that was inspired by his dead friend Miguel (Bobby Plasencia). Miguel's spectral appearances (like Roi's scenes with Francis and Hinds) fill in the Man's history. The collective aim of all these scenes is to suggest the force of memory, which blurs the line between the real and the remembered.

Initially contentious and defeatingly allegorical, the burgeoning relationship between Roi's Woman and Ward's Man is the principle and weakly effective engine for a story that weaves coyly back and forth in time, coaxing links between the characters' personal histories and the collective sorrows of ancient Pompeii and contemporary New York.

Suffering, loss, the ghosts of the dead, the interplay between the past we think we remember, the present we only ever seem to glimpse indirectly, and the future we can only imagine – Coxon is mining rich territory here. Her writing, too, is often lovely, so that it's hard to shake the impression that there's something wonderful buried somewhere in this promising, frustratingly abstract stage work.

Coxon is obviously a deep thinker with a poetic flare, but she struggles to give us flesh-and-blood characters to care about. Oddly (and perhaps this is part of the problem) her characters are all at least initially strangers to each other, and we don't really buy the way their relationships jell over time. As they struggle to make contact with each other, Coxon's ideas waft around, unmoored by real people, and unable, despite their great promise, to lay claim to the heart. In "Vesuvius," Coxon makes all kinds of interesting connections. But she fails, crucially, to make an emotional connection.

Playwright: Lucinda Coxon. Director: David Emmes. Set: Christopher Barreca. Costumes: Nephelie Andonyadis. Lighting: Tom Ruzika. Sound: Lindsay Jones. Video/projection: Austin Switser. Cast: Natacha Roi, Tony Ward, Bobby Plasencia, David Paul Francis, Jennifer Hinds.

Jennifer de Poyen: (619) 293-1277;

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