June 27, 2005



A Welcome Hello to 'Goodbye'

LATC Play Is Soul-Baring Gamble That Pays Off


by Rob Kendt



"I never want to stop sculpting you" is not a lover's pledge you hear very often. And few neglected children describe a parent's distance in these terms: "She didn't want me for a subject."


It is to Jamie Pachino's immense credit that the artistic struggles depicted in her moving play Waving Goodbye, now at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, register as powerful, tactile metaphors for human connection and creation rather than as esoteric aesthetic debates. In depicting a mother and daughter--both of them prickly, emotionally blocked artists--grappling to overcome a rocky, estranged past, Pachino delicately and unhurriedly builds to a powerful release of genuine feeling. She does this without romanticizing either the challenges of making art or maintaining relationships.


In director Martin Bedoian's extraordinarily sensitive and affecting new production for the Syzygy Theatre Group, Pachino's play is actor-driven, often against the grain of an imposing, possibly allegorical design: Sibyl Wickersheimer's expansive, artfully dishevelled set, lit like a construction site or a seaside aerie by Dan Reed, suggests a large, isolated house under perpetual remodeling. The program tells us instead that it's a "broken-down loft" in New York City, though it is also pressed into service as a mountaintop, courthouse steps and an art gallery for the play's flashbacks.


The effect is a little disorienting. But by leaving the scene-setting to the actors, who establish time and place with a minimum of fuss, Bedoian finally engages us all the more in this transitional, makeshift-looking world.


With actors this good, he can gladly hand over the steering wheel. Pale, reedy Heather Fox stars as Lily, the self-reliant 17-year-old who has sculptures rather than baby photos as records of her childhood--specifically, sculptures of her father's hands, rendered by her mother during their whirlwind courtship, after they met at a dangerously high elevation in Katmandu. A professional mountain-climbing guide, her father, Jonathan, is played by Scott Cummins as an unsentimental, tough-loving teddy bear who's learned from experience that equivocation can be fatal.


As if his rugged example hasn't made Lily self-sufficient enough, there is her absent mother, Amanda, who shipped off some seven years hence seeking new inspiration. (That opening lover's pledge had a short shelf life.) Though she looks too young to be Fox's mother, the sultry, mercurial Michelle Duffy brings to Amanda an intoxicating mixture of mournfulness and glee, volatility and stubbornness. Without falling back on the easy traps of playing an indomitable free spirit brought low--breeziness, self-righteousness, soppy regret--Duffy gives us a woman as irreducibly insistent on following her muse as she is sincerely damaged by her own mistakes.


As Boggy, an eager new friend and confidant of Lily's, the towheaded Damien Midkiff comes perilously close to stealing the show, but not because he's overdoing it. Indeed, his performance is a model of subtle, nudging support; much like the charmingly un-presumptuous Boggy, Midkiff knows when he's made his point and it's time to scoot. And as Amanda's hard-bitten art dealer, Perry, Hope Shapiro artfully plays against the easy bitchiness of the role; she burrows deep and comes up with something genuinely sour and flinty, and ultimately human.


Choices like this decisively tip the scales for "Waving Goodbye." At every turn, Bedoian and company avoid trifling or glib artifice in favor of a more prosaic but ultimately shattering emotional realism. It's a gamble, indeed, for a play that's already so intimate and soul-baring, to put its heart so far out on the sleeve.


But it pays off. When Pachino pulls out the stops near play's end, we feel it with gale force. And we might say of "Waving Goodbye" what Boggy says of Lily: "You have weight. You glow."


Waving Goodbye is at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through July 24, 514 S. Spring St. (323) 254-9328 or