SAN DIEGO — Playwright Percy Granger seems to have laid out his drama, "Eminent Domain," on a coffee table, sentence by careful sentence, painstakingly piecing together childhood observations of his parents--a literature professor and an artist--into a letter-perfect drama.
The presumption that "Eminent Domain" is autobiographical derives from the fact that Granger's perceptions ring true--even if they are not. His characters seem familiar, possessing all the subtle contradictions and quirks of real human beings, perhaps endowed with a few extra flaws by the nearsightedness through which a child peers at his parents.
That slightly distorted vision is quite all right when it comes to play making. Dramatic characters need to be a little overblown, and Granger's are exaggerated just enough to make them the best part of "Eminent Domain."
The play, directed by Will Simpson, opened last week at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre. It is long, absorbing, engrossing and not very exciting.
This is a reasonably good production of a reasonably good script. But it misses something that might have made it unique. It doesn't have the sticking quality that makes a brilliant play unforgettable, or a disturbing note that won't resolve except in the viewer's mind.
"Eminent Domain" takes place on a middle ground: mid-70s, Midwestern university, midwinter, middle age. The professorial, father-figure, Holmes (Paul L. Nolan), teaches literature, when not suffering the burn-out of his mid-profession, stranded-in-nowhere status.
His wife, Katie (Patti van Roode), provides the mystery of a wife-mother who was a promising artist but no longer paints, or dines out, or sleeps with her husband or does much of anything but teach a beginning art class and move stiffly about in her elegant dressing gown.
An aggressive graduate student, Victor (Jeff Michaels), provides the catalyst. The Harvard scholar is writing a dissertation on the couple's missing son, a poet of considerable talent, according to Victor, whose fame is drawing his parents under a public spotlight Katie vehemently wishes to avoid.
Although the son left home at 16, fleeing in the middle of the night, Victor pushes himself upon the reluctant parents to research the poet's roots. He also hopes for a stamp of approval from Holmes, whose reputation carries its own weight in scholarly circles.
Victor's intrusion stirs things enough for us all--Holmes and Katie included--to explore why these two intelligent individuals have padded their lives to the point of suffocation with meaningless rituals, terrified to let go of their daily routines for fear of touching long-stifled emotions.
Simpson lets his cast take a leisurely pace, directing the piece on the cramped Gaslamp stage as if for soap opera cameras. Long speeches are delivered with backs to the audience, sometimes obscuring two actors' faces. The intimate feeling is conveyed, but many acting subtleties are lost for portions of the audience who simply cannot see the full image.
Fortunately, this is a strong cast, capable enough to survive such problems and the physical demands of Robert Earl's amazing set, which tightly fits a living room, hallway and study into half the space of a formal dining room and barely gives an actor room to wave an arm.
Despite the predominance of the back of his head, actor Nolan has a firm finger on the pulse of the bitter Holmes. He captures our empathy, while Michaels, as the pushy graduate student, alternates between being a hero and a villain--but he does so with admirable skill.
Van Roode is nearly done in by Katie's stubbornness. By the time we get a peek at the inner Katie, we already know most of her dark past--and Van Roode's icy interpretation has cooled our interest. A little warmth a little sooner might have kept Katie's fascination alive.
In small roles, Mike Timoney provides some refreshing humor as a gauche, self-centered college freshman, while Steve Gubin's character--a troublesome but popular instructor--seems like a playwright's afterthought.
Randi Budlong's costumes echo personalities in cool ivories and dusty beiges. Sound designer John Hauser chose an irritating, repetitive score that picks up on Victor's frustrations but loses its appeal long before we've heard the end of it.
Lighting designer Matthew Cubitto displays his neat offstage daylight tricks, adding welcome dimension to the limited physical surroundings.
"Eminent Domain" is like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" gone silent. The play's sensitivity to the publish-or-perish pressure of the university scene is revealing, but not unknown territory, and it overwhelms the general humanity of the piece. Granger's craftsmanship is exemplary, but his purpose seems blurred.
Like Victor, we are visitors to Holmes' and Katie's lives who never get past the front door. We can look inside, but the room appears to be empty. "EMINENT DOMAIN" By Percy Granger. Directed by Will Simpson. Executive Producer, Kit Goldman. Settings designed by Robert Earl. Lighting designed by Matthew Cubitto. Costumes designed by Randi Budlong. Sound designed by John Hauser. With Steve Gubin, Jeff Michaels, Paul L. Nolan, Patti van Roode and Mike Timoney. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through July 19 at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, 547 4th Ave.