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Stage Review : 'Salonika': A Complex, Subtle, Sensitive Work


Salonika was a World War I embarkation point at which the Allied strategy was impaired by an outbreak of malaria. In other words, it was a plan that fizzled.

Louise Page's "Salonika," having its West Coast premiere at Theatre 40, takes the theme of hopes deferred and plays them through several lives, like a recurrent musical theme. It's a complex, quietly lovely work that shows how there's no end to injury in the lives surrounding the fatally injured.

To the beach at Salonika comes Charlotte, a woman in her 80s, and her daughter Enid, who is around 65, to visit the grave of Charlotte's husband (Enid's father) Ben, who died there as a soldier. They're British, and suffer from the English small-town prejudices that make them a touch incongruous in this setting. (They wear their shoes to the beach, and the dutiful spinsterish Enid warns how "in capital cities, you have to be careful. They take advantage.")

Leonard, Charlotte's elderly suitor, is along to try to win her--unmindful that they're there to exorcise the past, or at least reclaim it in some meaningful way. Young, fatally dissipated Peter, a British expatriate, suns himself nude on the beach daily. At the opening of the play they see his sleeping body; it's an emblematic reminder of youth and a symbol of what is eternal about the idea of a sun-drenched, classical Salonika in the pokey lives of British provincials.

Charlotte and Enid have idealized Ben, who is time-sealed in youth, and their unofficial rite of exorcism is complicated somewhat by his ghostly reappearance and confession that he wasn't the hero he was assumed to be. Enid is especially hard hit by the revelation, which should be meaningless at this point except that it's a manifestation of one more disappointment in the life of a woman to whom no man was as good as her father.

"Salonika" isn't a work with a great deal of surface tension. There are no heated exchanges in it, no confessional arias or lacerating confrontations. It's close in spirit to the work of Penelope Gilliatt, or Pinter without the menace, where the small gesture speaks tellingly. Nor are the men drawn particularly well.

It's a work of subtle observation which, like the lives of most of us, doesn't halt at dramatic conclusions. Most of what goes on with us goes on inside us, and isn't told--there isn't time, and individual minds are off in their own directions. The link between mother and daughter here has been forged over time, and that's the link that prevails, even after Enid has been more than willing to pay Peter to sleep with her.

"Salonika" is a hard play to bring to the surface because most of its action goes on underneath in characters who aren't gifted with intellectual clarity. And director Roberta Levitow's cast is uneven: Russell Sommers' sensitive portrayal of Peter contains no harbinger of his doom. Frank Biro's portrayal of the suitor Leonard is amiable and functional, but not much more.

Michael Gough's Ben is an endearingly light portrayal of youth that only knows its limited experience and tells it as it sees it. Harriet Medin's Charlotte is a woman with a cause who is also a woman without rancor; her age has bestowed on her a humor, so that when she says to Enid, "You don't want me happy until I'm dead," she's beyond spite.

Anne Bellamy's Enid is at "Salonika's" center, a woman who has discoveries to make, including the discovery that she won't change. Even in acute loneliness and sexual anxiety--which we see--this isn't a character who loses herself as much as she continually finds herself, even after she realizes that she's wasted her life idealizing her father. It's a theatrically articulate, moving portrayal.

At the end mother and daughter are alone together on the beach, having remarked the vivid stars that contain so much of what for them has been a dream life, and will soon be an afterlife. They've had their revelations; whether they're sad or ennobling they can't say. They've achieved "Salonika's" inarticulate groping toward communion.

Dan Dryden's beach set looks a bit like carved-up Posturepedic rectangles, but Claremarie Verheyen's costumes, Geoffrey Rinehart's lights and Curtis Roush's music are effective.

Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., at 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills (on the campus of Beverly Hills High School), (213) 277-4221, through April 13.

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