They really don’t make ’em like “Balm in Gilead” anymore, which is probably for the best. Now marking its 40th anniversary, Lanford Wilson’s desperate ode to ’60s-era hookers, druggies and queers bears the conspicuous mark of a departed theatrical moment.
Aiming to capture the elusive essence of a cultural scene — much like the New Group’s avant-garde work — Wilson eschews traditional narrative for dozens of aimless stories, drawing sketches of a burned-out community. By now, the loose form has become overly familiar, and “Gilead” doesn’t dive deep enough into its junkie abyss to distract from the structure.
Still, the play could have passing interest as a museum piece if given a production that captured the lazy rhythms of its language and the casual menace of its tone. But that doesn’t happen with Barefoot Theater Company’s staging. Try as it might, the cast never quite cops to Wilson’s groove.
Director Eric Nightengale works valiantly to coordinate the inhabitants of a sleazy city diner, juggling a massive group of characters that launch various complaints about their lives. He aims for a symphonic effect, raising the volume on one conversation at a time while the rest hum softly in the background. Occasionally, the scoring works to create a palpable, kinetic life.
Mostly, though, the cast remains tentative, waiting too politely for one snatch of dialogue to end before starting the next. Therefore, outbursts from, say, the tranny hooker or the alcoholic poet feel labored instead of visceral. Such tidy chaos sucks energy off the stage and leaves all the debauchery feeling rehearsed.
Little improves outside the crowd scenes, when Wilson tosses us the crust of a plot about Darlene (Anna Chlumsky), a naive young prostitute trying to find love with drug-dealing Joe (Francisco Solorzano) and friendship with fellow call-girl Ann (Victoria Malvagno). The leads tend to founder alone as much as they do in the ensemble.
One exception is Chlumsky — mostly MIA since the “My Girl” films — who does decent work with her thin character. At the very least, she makes clear acting choices as she wends through awkward flirtations and a 15-minute flashback monologue. Her Darlene is a terrified child, with jittery hands belying the fear beneath her grinning attempt at universal friendliness.
Granted, she could mine a few more emotions from the role, but Chlumsky — along with a gruffly maternal Malvagno — seems like a genius next to the other major players. Solorzano especially succumbs to the twitchy tics and hyperenunciated speech that so poorly suggest inner turmoil.
The only truly effective elements on display are the costumes, designed by Malvagno (who must be a Renaissance woman, since she also manages Barefoot Theater and stars in the docu “Mad Hot Ballroom”). A collection of faded leather boots, ratty army jackets and gaudy costume jewelry, the clothes were obviously created on the cheap, but squalor is just what’s called for. Malvagno distresses her wares with the perfect number of rips and dirt patches, offering this production a rare instance of a fully realized vision.