A new play by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Marshall W. Mason. At the Brroks Atkinson Theatre.
WHEN the curtain rises at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, there is a collective gasp as the audience sees the magnificent vision of a redwood forest created by scenic designer John Lee Beatty. That imagery is not matched by Lanford Wilson's writing, which sinks to the level of prosaic dreariness.
The play was inspired by Wilson's visit to the redwood forests of Northern California, where there has apparently been an influx of battle-scarred Vietnam War veterans who are ensconced there as hermits in a sort of unofficial private community. Into this bucolic environment wanders Geri (Sung Yun Cho), a teenage Amerasian girl and musical prodigy who is obsessed with finding her real father, an American serviceman. The Vietnamese woman with whom he had a liaison came to America and put the baby up for a doption. Geri's adoptive father is now dead, and she is staying with her Aunt Geneva (Debra Monk), who conveniently has a home adjacent to the forest.
As the play begins, we meet one of these hermits (actually, we first meet his dog, who barks on cue like a pro), played by Jeff Daniels, who seems to have physically grown for his part. Huge, shaggy, and unkempt, with long hair and a flowing beard, he encounters Geri, who at first claims to be lost but later admits to following him. Despite his psychotic mannerisms and uncommunicative grunts, she becomes convinced that she has finally found her father, based on such evidence as a tattoo.
We discover in the next scene that she may actually be right, as the recalcitrant drifter shows up at the aunt's house, ostensibly to return the youngster's wallet, but actually because she has revealed some facts that he finds disturbing.
The encounter between him and the acerbic Geneva is the best-written part of the play, as the flustered woman comically attempts to deal with this hulking figure grunting in her doorway. At first she is frightened, but ultimately she is intrigued, and when Geri demands another trip inside the forest to confront him, Geneva comes along. The resulting surprise ending has a melodramatic twist that would not be out of place on an afternoon soap opera.
The conception is not as problematic as the writing. Wilson's plays have always relied more on mood than on plotting, but he usually has a good ear for sharp and witty dialogue and a vivid sense of characterization. Here he is hamstrung by the fact that his male lead is a cipher and his leading female character is a precocious teenager who soon turns annoying and who has a propensity for whining and self-pity.
Monk, as Geneva, has the best lines of the evening, and she knows what to do with them. She steals the show. Sung Yun Cho gives a skillful and energetic performance, but she is unable to counter the stupidity of her character, who resorts to mock karate poses when threatened. Wilson has also given the girl vague mystical powers, presumably to lend an air of magical realism to the piece, but without more context director Marshall Mason seems at a loss as to what to do with them.
Daniels, whose appearance is unrecognizable from previous movie roles, delivers a forceful performance - he speaks in dark, gutteral tones and walks with a stiff, rigid gait. The actor is moving, especially in the final moments of the play, when a single physical gesture speaks volumes about his character's emotional state. In a few scattered moments like this, "Redwood Curtain" achieves the simple poetic quality it is striving for. But the play, like the characters, is dwarfed by those magnificent redwo ods.