Review: ‘The Panel’

Novelist Dorothy Bryant's first play, "Dear Master," turned the correspondence between Gustave Flaubert and George Sand into a viable if theatrically limited drama. That work also launched Berkeley's well-regarded Aurora Theater Co. in 1992; now Bryant's back with a soph effort for the same house. More ambitious but less satisfying, "The Panel" reaps mixed rewards in trying to convey the complex legacy of French philosopher Simone Weil.

Novelist Dorothy Bryant’s first play, “Dear Master,” turned the correspondence between Gustave Flaubert and George Sand into a viable if theatrically limited drama. That work also launched Berkeley’s well-regarded Aurora Theater Co. in 1992; now Bryant’s back with a soph effort for the same house. More ambitious but less satisfying, “The Panel” reaps mixed rewards in trying to convey the complex legacy of French philosopher Simone Weil.

Dead in 1943 from TB and self-starvation at the age of 34 (sent to England for care, she refused to eat more than the wartime rations allotted back home), Weil had already lived several lives. She was a teacher, a theologian, a product of the bourgeoisie who at one point undertook grueling factory work for a full year in order to better grasp workers’ issues; a Jew turned (nonbaptized) Catholic. Sartre dubbed her “saint of outsiders,” Camus “the only great spirit of our era.”

Weil has remained problematic to those who have wanted to pigeonhole her ideas (or motivations). The vehicle Bryant has chosen for considering this contrary figure is a literal, university-sponsored panel, moderated — though she doesn’t remain moderate for long — by Womens’ Studies Dept. grad student Marsha Lee (Louahn Lowe). Invited participants are blustery, bitter leftist community organizer William Bettencourt (Terry Lamb); Jewish psychology prof Nathan Schneider (Allan Droyan) and nun and scholar Sister Cecilia Vero (Joan Mankin).

Each weighs in with a predictably one-dimensional assessment of Weil as proletarian revolutionary, victim of oppression and self-hatred, anti-Semitic Jew and born-again Christian mystic. (Lowe’s student is stuck with the dimmest arguments, since her feminist view doesn’t get much further than noting the unconventional Weil “refused to be seen as a sex object.”)

Meanwhile, a ghostly Weil herself (played by wry, earnest, if under-used, Lura Dolas) comments with mixed bewilderment and wit on this posthumous debate. Sometimes she tussles with her interpreters directly — and neither Bryant nor director Barbara Oliver has found a way to make clean transitions between these various communication planes.

In act two, the ideologically opposed panelists (ostensibly addressing written audience questions) really get on one another’s nerves, while Weil sits mutely in a corner. Eventually, “The Panel” plays like an intellectual disaster movie: Stereotypes under pressure reveal expected differences and a few shared vulnerabilities. It even climaxes in fisticuffs. Amid such one-note advocates and defenders, Weil here emerges as no enigma but a rather ordinary voice of middle-ground reason and compassion. Surely Bryant intended something a little more complex; in the end, the play simply lifts Weil onto a pedestal, where she can look suitably baffled by the warring ants below.

If “The Panel” feels ever more contrived, it nonetheless has a certain enjoyable integrity; its faux-academic air is ideally suited to the intimacy of Aurora’s Berkeley City Club home. Mankin and Lamb manage some sly moments, while Droyan does well in a more understated, observatory mode. Design elements are modest but apt.

The Panel

Production

BERKELEY, Calif. An Aurora Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Dorothy Bryant. Directed by Barbara Oliver.

Crew

Set, lighting, Rick Martin; costumes, Cassandra Carpenter; sound, Matthew Spiro; fights, Joan Mankin. Artistic director, Oliver. Opened, reviewed Feb. 1, 1996, at Berkeley City Club; 67 seats; $ 20. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Cast: Lura Dolas (Spirit of Simone Weil), Louahn Lowe (Marsha Lee), Allan Droyan (Professor Nathan Schneider), Joan Mankin (Sister Cecilia Vero), Terry Lamb (William Bettencourt).
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