Circumference of a Squirrel or
Also see Bob's review of She Loves Me
Playwrights Theatre in Madison, continuing its mission to develop new plays, is performing Circumference of a Squirrel - A Riff with an Inner-Tube, a new 85-minute, one-act and one actor monologue by John Walch. It is gracefully written and tantalizingly thought provoking, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Chester, or C.J., a young man appearing to be around the age of 30, is spending his days sitting on a bench on the urban campus of the University of Pennsylvania. His life has stalled out and he is more comfortable sitting amid the hustle and bustle of the campus than he would be in his lonely, dingy nearby apartment. Chester is a UP graduate student in microbiology who has been pressured by the school to take a leave of absence. To make matters worse, his wife Daria has just finalized a divorce of which he never wanted any part. On the day that we spend on campus with Chester, a determined squirrel and his cadged bagel will alter Chester's life.
Observing the game squirrel, a flood of memories overcomes Chester. When Chester was little, his barefoot father was bitten on a toe by a squirrel. As a result, his father was required to have an extended, horribly painful series of rabies shots. Thereafter, filled with hatred for the bushy-tailed rodents, his father devoted himself to killing squirrels in any manner that he could conceive. He even paid Chester and his brother fifty cents for each kill. This was fine with Chester until the day his father sadistically inflicted pain on his kill. In Chester's mind, his father instantly morphed into a hated monster. His father's monsterdom was shortly thereafter compounded when he casually remarked, "Hitler was a madman, but he sure knew how to kill Jews."
Over the balance of the play, Chester's monologue veers between two traumatic occasions. One is the trip that he and Daria, his Jewish bride to be, made from their Philadelphia home to visit his parents in Kansas City. The other is his recent return there at his mother's behest for a final visit with his dying father.
There are rich theatrical devices and poetic moments throughout. When Chester at first appears with a black inner tube in his mouth, we see this as a visual equivalent of the squirrel holding his bagel; shortly thereafter, it will become the inner tube which served as a swing in Chester's boyhood. The anatomical and biological data on squirrels is written with a poetic beauty.
Praise is due to author John Walch for painting such vibrant and vivid pictures of Daria and Chester's parents, and the events which they inhabit. Further credit must be given to director James Glossman who moves the play along at an appropriately frantic pace, never allowing it to become static.
Best of all is one of New Jersey's finest and most ubiquitous actors, Ames Adamson. There is not one false move as he creates images for an adult and boyhood Chester, and of all the other characters that appear in his story. The pace, clarity, physicality and unflagging energy with which fills each character and incident is invigorating and teems with life. Adamson is ideally suited to this role in every which way. It would not be possible to over praise his work here.
So just why is Circumference of a Squirrel ultimately unsatisfying? It is not psychologically convincing nor does it provide enough detail about the marriage of Chester and Daria. Would Chester suddenly and permanently hate his father because of a couple of extra whacks at a squirrel that he would happily have killed? Would one casual bigoted remark have a similar effect? If there are other things already poisoning the affection between father and son (i.e., his father's poor behavior toward his mother), then it must be made clear.
Even more troubling is the lack of exploration of the dissolution of Chester and Daria's marriage. Her only voiced complaint is that Chester is unable to directly confront his father. My reaction to this is, "Jeez, give the guy a break." Clearly, there is a lot more that the writer wants us to get out of Daria's complaint. Has Chester been infected with his father's prejudice? Has he taken up with an incompatible Daria just to spite his father? How has his hatred of his father manifested itself in his life? We just can't know, and this is not good.
Therefore in the end, the fine writing, direction and acting notwithstanding, the evening feels thin. Post performance, I read program notes lauding the richness of Walch's imagery regarding circles. Most interesting. However, it cannot replace needed basics. All this put me in mind of a Fred Ebb lyric: "Throw 'em a fake and a finagle/they'll never know you're just a bagel/razzle dazzle 'em and they'll beg you for more." Well, this enjoyable bagel with its stellar performance by Ames Adamson makes a nice, tasty, light bite, but ultimately it is not yet filling because of the hole in its middle.
Circumference of a Squirrel - A Riff with an Inner-Tube continues performances through November 14, 2004 at the Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, N.J. 07940. Box office: 973-514-1787; online: www.ptnj.org.
Circumference of a Squirrel - A Riff with an Inner-Tube, a new play by John Walch; directed by James Glossman