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.
HOWARDThe 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.
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
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.
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; www.scr.org
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
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
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; firstname.lastname@example.org