- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

“This is exalted time,” Lia insists about the end of a man’s life in Don DeLillo’s new play, “Love-Lies-Bleeding.” But not everyone — in the drama or in the country — agrees with her. That sets the stage for a debate in both realms on what it means to die with dignity and whether we can, or should, hasten the process.

The production at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater is a joint one between Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays. It explores a very timely question — Terri Schiavo’s case is still fresh in our minds — while avoiding cheap platitudes and easy answers on either side. But in its effort to be fair, it leaves the viewer dissatisfied. Mr. DeLillo, a literary postmodernist beloved of academic critics, does such a good job of not manipulating our sympathies that he leaves us, in the end, without any for the man whose life is at stake.

The play travels back and forth in time over the final years of Alex, an artist whose inspiration has taken him to the desert. But the main action takes place in his final few days. His second wife, Toinette, and his son from his first marriage, Sean, arrive determined to convince his fourth (and current) wife, Lia, to allow them to end Alex’s life. He’s had two strokes and is in a persistent vegetative state. The vital man would never have wanted to live that way, Sean and Toinette argue. But Lia is content to hold Alex’s hand and look for signs of life in his endlessly open eyes.

The set reminds us constantly of the theme of death. The design is dominated by rough-hewn and randomly chiseled timbers, some in the shape of a hangman’s noose.

“He absorbed certain people. Consumed them,” Sean says of his father. It’s certainly true of these three. Even as he sits almost lifeless in a wheelchair, Alex is the center of attention. Sean and Toinette claim their act would be one of mercy. Lia claims her resistance comes from a simple reluctance to play God. But motivations are never uncomplicated things. Toinette remembers the long silences at the end of their relationship. “Vaguely sinister. Each of us wishing the other dead in a car crash,” she says. “Fine, I wanted him dead, but not scattered into smoky little pieces.” Sean responds, “That’s the difference between men and women.”

That line, and many others, had the audience laughing. But Sean is the most disturbing character of the play. There are plenty of hints that his plan is more an act of mercy for him than for Alex. Talking to his comatose father, he accuses him of never having wanted a child: “It violated your seclusion. Your private turmoil.”

Toinette throws hurt around as easily as her weight. Played by Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey, who has more than a passing resemblance to television actress Wendie Malick, she’s a powerful figure. She dominates Penelope Walker’s Lia, who seems more a dedicated nurse than a grieving wife. Louis Cancelmi’s Sean suffered from the actor’s woodenness. It made him more sinister, less explicable.

It doesn’t help that none of these three really communicates with the others. Mr. DeLillo, a critically admired and influential novelist, has given them many beautiful things to say, but they don’t say them to each other. The drama is more a series of speeches than a story.

But that’s not even the play’s biggest weakness. We never get enough of a sense of Alex the man, the center of the debate and the characters’ lives. It’s not John Heard’s fault. The stage and screen veteran, in his scenes as pre-comatose Alex, is very much alive. But these scenes are too short and serve more to illuminate his loves than the man whose life they finally hold in their hands.

“There’s more of you than there ever was of me,” Alex says to Lia after his first stroke. That’s unfortunately true of this interesting, but deeply flawed, play.

**

WHAT: “Love-Lies-Bleeding” by Don DeLillo

WHERE: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

WHEN: Today through Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Additional performances tomorrow and Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $35

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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