School of hard knocks

By Tom Helma

LCC Theatre’s ’Balm’ a so-so lesson in street life

As an exercise in teaching acting students about the desperate, gritty lives of New York street people, Lansing Community College Theatre Department’s “Balm in Gilead” is a huge success. One of Lanford Wilson’s earliest plays, “Balm” features more than 20 characters, including pimps, pushers, prostitutes, drunks, thieves and drug addicts.

The play also comes with a host of what were huge innovations for live theater at its 1965 premiere.

Set in a seedy, upper Broadway diner (brought to the stage by Bartley H. Bauer) the play opens with an off-key doo-wop number. The characters arrive from all directions, striking up overlapping conversations to create the kind of cacophony one might find walking into any diner anywhere, except these conversations are the stuff of street trade — hustlers and those being hustled.

LCC theater students and a few community theater veterans are costumed to look the part, and some also soundlike what one might expect from a New York street scene.

Leading the charge is Jonathan Stewart, as Dopey, the wise old junkie who narrates the play and observes that cockroaches were here before humankind and will outlast us as well.

Dave Dunckel shines in his two small roles of Xavier the supplier and “the stranger,” a mysterious enforcer/hit man.

In the featured role of Ann, a former Minnesota teacher turned street prostitute, Courtney Rauch is particularly effective as a down-and-out, beehive-adorned hooker.

At the center of this play, however, are Joe, played by David G.B. Brown, and Darlene, played by Kayla De Witt. Neither character is particularly believable. As Joe, Brown comes across as overly muscled and bland, while De Witt’s Darlene, naïve and newly arrived from Chicago, is given a lengthy chunk of Act 2 to dryly deliver an insipid monologue.

The rest of the ensemble cast members come and go regularly, spouting side conversations that seem realistic but add little to what little there is of a plot. Photo courtesy of Kevin Fowler (From left) Michael Banghart, Gabe Young and Andrew Baliff in LCC Theatre’s “Balm in Gilead." (Joe considers leaving the street life for Darlene and gets stabbed to death with a giant syringe to end the play).

Ultimately, the substance of the play is problematic. It’s not enough for a playwright to just sit and listen to the ordinary, empty conversations of street people and scribble them down as if they are dialogue.

Still, director John Lepard gets kudos for selecting this play, because it allows him to put most, if not all, LCC theater students on stage at once, and it exposes them to the harshness of “the life.”

We can hope this on-stage experience will help prevent some of them from 2 becoming Macbeth starving March 25 artist & April street-people themselves.

‘Balm in Gilead’

April 4 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday LCC Theatre Department, Dart
Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing $10/$5 (517) 372-0945