A Perfect Ganesh” confirms what “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” suggested: Terrence McNally has evolved from America’s most amusing playwright into one of our most accomplished. In this hauntingly moving 1993 play, McNally reaches new layers of emotional depth without sacrificing the wit that has made his work so enjoyable.
Santa Barbara’s Ensemble Theatre Company is staging the play’s West Coast premiere, and artistic director Robert Grande-Weiss’ production does the play full justice. If an excuse is needed to drive up the coast, serious theatergoers now have one.
McNally’s play is, on the surface, about two American women who take a vacation to India. Margaret Civil (Gretchen Evans) and Katharine Brynne (Sylvia Short), two reasonably well-off New Yorkers, decide to forgo their usual two weeks in the Bahamas for the excitement of discovering a new continent.
Both are searching for something far more than adventure, however: They are seeking peace of mind. Both women have lost a son; neither has gotten over the pain. On some level, both suspect a trip to India — which will bring them face to face with both extreme beauty and unspeakable horrors — will help unlock their frozen emotions.
Guiding them on this journey is Ganesha (Dan Gunther), a Hindu god who has four arms and the head of an elephant. He appears to them in various guises during the course of their stay — a travel company representative, a Japanese tourist, a street beggar — as he attempts to nudge them toward self-awareness and self-acceptance.
McNally’s writing is as bright and clever as always, but, unlike many writers , he never uses wit to skirt emotional honesty. Rather, he allows us to look right into the hearts of these women, and the result is a quite melancholy play indeed.
Like “Lips Together,””Ganesh” could lose about 15 minutes. We really don’t need two scenes in which the two women can see each other, but are too far apart to hear what the other is saying. The first makes its point splendidly; the second is redundant.
But there are several scenes that rank among McNally’s best. One in which the two ladies and a boorish fellow tourist take a boat ride down a river and watch the bodies — animal and human — float by is almost too painful to watch.
Grande-Weiss directs with great fluidity. He is aided in this by set designer Robert L. Smith, who manages to skillfully suggest such varied locations as an airport terminal and the Taj Mahal with a minimum of stage decoration.
The two leading ladies have the complex task of portraying women who, except for brief moments, do not reveal their inner selves. Both meet the challenge. Evans sees to it that Margaret never lets her guard down in front of her friend, thereby avoiding even a hint of sentimentality. Short makes Katharine’s proclamations of enthusiasm and high spirits sound appropriately hollow.
As Ganesha, the god who can metamorphose into almost anyone, Gunther (who spends the entire evening behind a mask) brings a number of characters to vivid life. The same is true of Christopher Vore, who plays all the other men Margaret and Katharine encounter on their journey.
“A Perfect Ganesh” is ultimately rather bleak; it’s a look at two characters with enough self-knowledge to know what they must do, but without the courage to act on that understanding. Through the character of Ganesha, McNally points the way to a better and more compassionate world, but in the end, he doesn’t have a lot of faith that we’re going to get there.