Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Poor Itch

Photo/Joan Marcus

It's not easy to write about Iraq. [Draft A.] It's not easy to write theater about Iraq. [Draft B] It's not easy to write theater. [Draft C] It's not easy to write.

A flash of lights, the unchecked, photographic full-bright of a boxing ring, the sound of a bell (see David Ives's "Sure Thing," perhaps) echoes -- ominously -- in the background.

[Note to self: scratch that bit. You're putting the description before the plot.]

That's how a proper review of The Poor Itch would be written. It would do more than mirror the unfinished play's fragmented forms; it would shed light on the creative process, allowing the reader to understand the steps I, as a writer, took to match words to thoughts, and ideas to themes. It would be a bold review, no doubt, but that's what it would take to do justice to John Belluso's play, for that is the way in which Lisa Peterson has staged her late friend's last work. In the interests of keeping things straight, imagine, then, that this review parallels the first act of The Poor Itch (which is largely complete and unbroken), and then use your imagination to consider the second, which is not only more symbolic, but more representative -- in fragments -- of Ian's physical condition (he is paraplegic) and mental decline (he suffers from PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder).

Ian's a typical anti-hero, but while his ends are the same, Christopher Thornton plays the means against type. He's bitter, yes, but he's proud of being a soldier, and when he inevitably snaps at his fussy mother, Coral (Deirdre O'Connell), it's with a frightening physicality that we don't expect. He regrets having sex with his best friend Curt's (Michael Chernus's) now-pregnant girlfriend, Erica (Susan Pourfar), but not so much that he won't do it again, simply because he still can. He takes recreational drugs, but refuses to take his OxyContin, not running from anything so much as wheeling alongside his problems, trying to run them down. And although he writes letters to his Army buddy McGowan (Marc Damon Johnson), he's well aware that his friend is dead. Nowhere is his inner turmoil clearer, though, than in the way he treats Katie (Alicia Goranson), a spirited physical therapist with a need for attention. In his other scenes, Thornton most resembles a cog that has been sharpened into a specific use, a use that -- post-Army -- has left Ian abrasive and without a place, but around Katie, he allows himself to soften (well, part of himself).

With Thornton in command of his role, Lisa Peterson is free to concentrate on altering the rest of the world around him, which she does, smoothly. At first, he only sees the singing translator (Piter Marek) in his dreams, as he floats endlessly downstream with McGowan, but it isn't long before the very furniture he sits on suddenly changes (with lighting cues from Ben Stanton) into the raft, or a wall being hammered by gunfire (Robert Kaplowitz's gunshots even come with the sound of spent casings hitting the floor). As the play moves from dive bars and ratty apartments into Ian's repressed memories, doors fly into the foreground, full of mystery and symbolism, the figures behind them (Churchill at one point, Bush at another; both as they divide up Iraq) grim parallels for the true figure lying there, handcuffed, with endless water sloshing over his face.

Even unfinished, those are some pretty hard to miss statements, and Peterson fleshes the rest out by having the actors read the stage directions or notes for scenes that were never written. (A grim observation: all of the incomplete scenes had to do with reconciliation. Doesn't it say something that it is easier for Americans to write -- to comprehend -- torture than kindness?) In conjunction with the alternate versions of scenes, played one after another (the actors skip around as if it were no big deal to fill in such Sapphic blanks), The Poor Itch is as good a glimpse as you're ever going to get into the inner workings of a playwright's mind. We're all the richer for this production, even if it leaves us with some nagging itches in our hearts.

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